Surprise! Boeing hands Air Force the keys to not just one, but two KC-46 tanker jets

Tanker handover ceremony
Boeing employees, military personnel and VIPs gather at Boeing’s assembly plant in Everett, Wash., for the handover of the first KC-46 refueling airplane. (Boeing via LiveStream)

Boeing executives today added an extra twist to what was expected to be a cut-and-dried ceremony to hand over its first KC-46 tanker aircraft to the U.S. Air Force.

Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, sprung the surprise in front of the hundreds of employees, Air Force personnel and VIPs gathered at the company’s assembly plant in Everett, Wash., where the heavily modified 767 jets have taken shape.

“I am delighted to be with you all today to celebrate the delivery of the first KC-46 tanker from Boeing to the United States Air Force,” she said. “Wait a minute! I’m sorry, I have made a mistake. I think I had that wrong. I believe I am delivering two KC-46 aircraft to the United States Air Force! Two!”

Caret announced that officials from Boeing and the Air Force signed the acceptance forms for a second KC-46, following up on the paperwork that was approved earlier this month for the first jet.

She and other Boeing executives made sure that two ceremonial keys were handed over to Air Force Gen. Maryanne Miller, commander of the Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Miller was filling in for Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose plane was reportedly diverted to Hill Air Force Base in Utah due to smoke in the cockpit.

“Of course, not a Boeing aircraft,” Miller quipped.

The first KC-46A Pegasus jets are to be flown to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas for another round of delivery ceremonies on Friday.

Miller said the airplane, which is designed to refuel a wide variety of military planes in midflight, will add “another arrow in our quiver of capabilities, as we provide rapid global mobility for our nation.” Boeing’s KC-46 planes will replace the Air Force’s oldest KC-135 Stratotanker planes, which were built by Boeing more than a half-century ago.

The KC-46 project has been a source of controversy for well more than a decade. After a back-and-forth over the contract award process, Boeing won the Air Force’s nod to build the first tanker in 2011. But the contract capped development costs for the first four tankers at $4.9 billion, and Boeing had to absorb all the costs over that amount.

Pre-tax cost overruns mounted to well over $3 billion, due largely to snags that were encountered during the longer-than-expected development and test program.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg referred to the difficulties today during his remarks to the Everett crowd.

“I think we all know the journey over the last several years, it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “In fact, it’s been hard. But this team stuck to it. This team worked together, and it reminds me again of what the amazing people of this company and our teammates can accomplish when we work together as one Boeing, and in this case, work together as a One Boeing, One Air Force team.”

The journey isn’t over yet. In addition to the two jets already accepted, eight other KC-46 planes are undergoing customer acceptance testing, and scores more are being built. Boeing is currently on contract for 52 of what’s expected to be 179 tankers for the Air Force. The total acquisition cost is projected to exceed $44 billion.

“We’re going to be building and supporting these tankers for our U.S. Air Force customer for decades, decades to come,” Muilenburg said.

Boeing is still on the hook to fix deficiencies that the Air Force identified in the KC-46’s remote vision system, which lets the flight crew know how the refueling process is going. The deficiencies have to do with glare or shadows that can obscure the operator’s view under certain lighting conditions.

The Air Force has said it “has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while we continue with initial operational testing and evaluation.” Up to $28 million could be withheld from the final payment on each aircraft until the fixes are made, the Air Force says.

Another issue has to do with wing-mounted refueling pods that make it possible to refuel two aircraft simultaneously. This week, Bloomberg News reported that Cobham, a British-based Boeing subcontractor, hasn’t met its specified schedule for certification and delivery of the pods.

Update for 3:30 p.m. PT Jan. 25: The first two tankers are now at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas after making the flight from Everett’s Paine Field.

The Wichita Eagle reported that the KC-46 jets arrived at 2:12 p.m. CT (12:12 p.m. PT) Jan. 25.

Lt. Col. Wes Spurlock, commander of the 344th Air Refueling Squadron, was quoted as saying that the KC-46 makes McConnell “the tip of the spear” for the U.S. military’s refueling efforts and the center of the tanker community for the entire country.

“This is a big deal,” Spurlock said. “It’s a game changer.”

Two more KC-46 tankers are due to fly to McConnell as early as next week.

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