Boeing Feeling the Heat to Fix Tanker, Air Force Official Says

(Bloomberg) -- Boeing Co. is responding to pressure from the U.S. Air Force to resolve nagging flaws with its KC-46 refueling tanker that are delaying delivery of the first plane, according to the service’s No. 2 civilian leader.

“I found that they were very pressurized to get this the last ten yards” to delivery, Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan said in an interview, describing a visit last month to Boeing’s Seattle facility to reinforce the service’s frustration with program delays that are forcing it to keep older KC-135 tankers in operation longer than planned.

Boeing Feeling the Heat to Fix Tanker, Air Force Official Says

“First delivery is not a contractual requirement,” and the original goal of April to June 2016 “was always an estimate,” Donovan said. Still, it’s “a psychological milestone, and it’s important to us.”

The Air Force now estimates the first of 179 tankers will be delivered late this year.

“We are working with the Air Force” on “delivering the first tanker as soon as possible,” Chick Ramey, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said in an email this week.

Crew’s View

Donovan said minor deficiencies don’t preclude accepting an initial delivery, and that may be the case with the first tanker. But he said Boeing must show it has fixed the two primary flaws with the refueling system: The crew’s view of the gassing operation is sometimes obscured as the tanker’s boom connects with another aircraft’s refueling receptacle. Also, the refueling boom sometimes scrapes other parts of the aircraft.

He said Boeing officials showed him software fixes that “will vastly improve” visibility in refueling operations.

On the most important contract milestone, Boeing’s current schedule shows it will deliver 18 aircraft and related refueling equipment by October 2018. But the Air Force assesses that’s not likely to occur until May 2019, according to a new Government Accountability Office assessment. Boeing was originally supposed to deliver the 18 aircraft and equipment by August 2017.

Donovan said the Air Force and Boeing also are working to agree on a common schedule for the tankers.

“Companies are usually optimistic, right?” because they “have to answer to shareholders, they have to motivate their workforces as well,” Donovan said. When estimates on milestones such as delivery dates are six months apart, “that’s a problem.”

Boeing announced Thursday that the tanker completed one of two key testing milestones required for a Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness certification for military systems installed on Boeing’s 767 passenger jet to make it a tanker.

“This is a huge milestone for the program and moves us closer to first KC-46 delivery,” Mike Gibbons, Boeing’s vice president and program manager for the tanker, said in a statement.

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