As Criticism Mounts, Boeing Looks to Keep Pace With KC-46 Deliveries

By Mandy Mayfield

Photo: Air Force

Following years of delays and high-profile snafus, the Boeing Co. is predicting the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker program will meet its key performance goals.

Boeing won the $4.9 billion fixed-price incentive contract in 2011 to build the tanker after successfully protesting a previous award to Airbus. The company has recently faced bouts of criticism from government officials and watchdogs over design issues, problems with foreign object debris and late deliveries.

The Air Force accepted its first delivery of the tanker in January, but has since halted deliveries of the aircraft twice due to the discovery of foreign object debris, or FOD.

Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson confirmed during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in April that deliveries of the aircraft had been paused for a second time due to debris in some closed compartments.

“We have got corrective action in place, including [a] 100 percent look at some of those closed compartments to make sure that the production line is being run the way that it needs to be run,” Wilson said.

The service began accepting the tankers again in April, according to the Air Force.

Boeing said the company is continuing to work with the service on solving the issue.

“We [at] Boeing are very committed to delivering FOD-free aircraft to the Air Force. Safety is our No. 1 priority,” Boeing spokesman Charles Ramey said. “I think it is important to note that none of the FOD-findings have impacted safety of flight.”

Ramey said Boeing is conducting additional company and customer inspections of the jets to get at the issue. “We have implemented preventative action plans,” he said. “We’ve also incorporated additional training and more rigorous clean-as-you-go practices and FOD awareness days … across the company.” Nothing has been a higher priority than this issue, he added.

Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said during a press briefing at the Paris Air Show that the service is having “cultural dialogues” with the company.

Although he is “happy with Boeing leadership and their response to FOD,” the Air Force will be working to address the issue for months, he said.

“This is not something that you fix by sending out a memo,” Roper said. “Every plane that’s on the line today, we expect to have foreign object debris because we expect the same lapse in quality assurance.”

The Air Force will not be halting inspections of the KC-46 anytime soon, he noted.

“We have gone through and we are very happy with the rigor and thoroughness of the inspections that Boeing and the [Defense Contract Management Agency] and Air Force team do,” he said. “We each do inspections, they go through the airframe from tip to tail. If any foreign object debris is found, the inspection starts again.”

In hopes of detecting where the FOD issues are stemming from, the Air Force will not push for a faster delivery schedule, Roper said.

Every KC-46 that is currently being flown by the Air Force has been inspected in areas that must be FOD-free for the aircraft to be safe to fly, he noted.

“There are a few sealed areas on the aircraft — namely fuel tanks, that are FOD tolerant and those airplanes will have to rotate back to Boeing over the next four weeks,” Roper said.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, said the issue may stem from a program that isn’t using its resources properly.

“Whether it’s the Dreamliner deliveries out of Charleston or whether it’s the 737 Max development program — there’s an across-the-board problem,” Aboulafia said. “The company has been emphasizing profitability and shareholder returns to the exclusion of the work, to the neglect of performance, and you really see that with the KC-46.”
Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan said the FOD issue is a point of embarrassment for Boeing.

“I’ve had discussions with the senior Boeing leaders [and] … they have characterized it as embarrassing,” Donovan told reporters at the Paris Air Show. “They admit that they have some kind of cultural issues that all organizations like that go through.”

Meanwhile, Boeing is delivering the aircraft as fast as the Air Force is willing to accept them, which as of August, is three airplanes every three weeks, said Mike Hafer, manager of global sales and marketing for the KC-46.

“We are building and delivering at that rate,” he noted.

Boeing has delivered 16 KC-46 tankers, Ramey said. McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, has eight and Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, has five. Three others were slated to fly out as early as mid-August.

The Air Force has an initial aircraft requirement of 179 tankers and Boeing is currently building more than 50 of those, Ramey said.

“It’s just a matter of working with … the Air Force partners and just making sure we’re synchronized so that they’re ready to accept and we’re ready to deliver,” he added.

Meanwhile, the company is contending with another problem.

The Air Force awarded Boeing a $55.5 million contract in August to modify the boom telescope actuator.

The Government Accountability Office released a report in June stating that it could take years to solve the problem.

“During developmental flight testing, pilots of lighter receiver aircraft, such as the A-10 and F-16, reported the need to use more power to move the boom forward while in contact with the boom to maintain refueling position,” the report said. “In addition, program officials said that the additional force exerted by the lighter aircraft can also create an issue when the boom is disconnected.”

Hafer said: “The Air Force gave us a specific design criterion, and we put forward our design to meet that criteria. It went through a preliminary design review, [we] submitted our plans during critical design review and then did our final delivery with the boom. The Air Force will acknowledge and has acknowledged that the boom today, as it exists, has met all that design criteria and has performed exactly as they requested us to perform.”

This issue was first recognized during a flight test refueling the A-10 Thunderbolt II. When the aircraft was loaded down with weapons at high altitudes, it had problems remaining on the boom, Hafer said.

“It’s not a boom problem,” he said. “It’s kind of a receiver problem.”

The Air Force requested an upgrade to the existing boom and to the actuators to allow the A-10 to stay connected in those far corners of the aircraft’s receiver, he noted.
Hafer said the tanker is slated to meet its performance goals.

“For the KC-46, there are nine KPPs, or key performance parameters, that the airplane must absolutely meet,” Hafer said. “I think we’ve closed on eight of those nine with concurrence with the Air Force that it does meet those performance parameters.”

The single outstanding performance goal that Boeing has yet to meet is an issue with the remote vision system, Hafer noted.

When the aircraft went into flight testing, it was discovered that when flying during low sun angles, the tanker was picking up glare off the receiver airplane, which cast a shadow over the top of the receiver airplane and made it difficult to discern exactly where the refueling receptacle was, Hafer said.

The issue occurred less than 3 percent of the time during testing, he noted.

“The Air Force said, ‘We’ve got to be able to do the mission without it changing any procedures or tactics to avoid this,’” he said.

Boeing has since unveiled an enhancement that allows boom operators to adjust their picture manually to help alleviate issues with the remote vision system, Hafer said. “We’ve got a path forward on that and [we’re] working closely to close that.”

One of the next big milestones for the KC-46 will include refueling airplanes operated by international allies and partners around the globe, he said.

“The U.S. Air Force drives that test schedule,” he noted. “I can’t speak to when we’ll see that first non-U.S. DoD airplane come up behind the airplane. But that will be a major milestone coming forward.”

Aboulafia said if the KC-46 receives international attention, that could be good news for the program.

“So much of the foreign market went over to Airbus, but you’re starting to see people look at the KC-46,” Aboulafia said. If the aircraft were to sell well abroad, that would show that the program is moving toward full recovery, he added.


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