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Boeing’s troubled refueling tanker risks falling behind by four more years

The first Boeing KC-46 tanker for the U.S. Air Force takes off from Paine Field in Everett, Wash.
The first Boeing KC-46 tanker for the U.S. Air Force takes off from Paine Field in Everett, Wash.
(Marian Lockhart / Boeing)

Boeing Co.’s troubled KC-46 tanker isn’t likely to be usable for Air Force operations for three to four more years because the contractor has made little progress in the eight months since deliveries began in fixing flaws with a vision system needed to dispense fuel, according to a top service official.

That would mean the new plane won’t start combat operations — replacing the current, aging fleet used in midair refueling — until more than a decade after Boeing won a competition to build 179 of the new tankers in February 2011.

Gen. Maryanne Miller, head of the Air Mobility Command, told reporters Thursday that she accepted a three- to four-year plan for corrections “because this is a complex issue.” She said “these things happen when you deliver a complex airplane” but “pressure’s on to get this into the fight.”

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The KC-46 — the Air Force’s third effort since 2001 to replace its aging tanker fleet — has been plagued by problems in areas including its “remote vision system.” Its seven cameras are used by a crew member sitting at a console behind the cockpit to guide a 59-foot extended boom to connect with a plane needing fuel and then to monitor the procedure.

Shadows or the glare of the sun can hamper the view on occasion, possibly resulting in scraping the other plane or difficulties in performing a refueling, according to the Air Force. Boeing officials told reporters during a May 2018 visit to the aircraft conversion facility outside Seattle that they deployed a software solution expected to overcome the main hurdle.

“Eight months have passed since our first delivery and Boeing has not made the needed progress in addressing” the major deficiencies with the Remote Vision System and the boom itself, Miller said. “I’m really looking forward to them bringing me the solution in a couple of months,” she said. “It’s a pass-fail grade” on whether the fixes work.

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The Air Force currently is withholding about $28 million, or 20% of each plane’s cost, from Boeing, or more than $500 million currently on the 19 planes delivered so far.

“We continue to work closely with the USAF and have a good path forward” on the Remote Vision System upgrade,” Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said in a statement. “The team has an agreed-upon set of requirements, and we are in the process of finalizing the details of the system improvements. Our collaboration with the Air Force will ensure that the KC-46 is operationally capable and robust for decades to come.”


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