After struggling through years of delay and absorbing billions of dollars of cost overruns, Boeing says the U.S. Air Force has accepted the first of what’s expected to be hundreds of KC-46 tanker aircraft.
The Air Force says the plane still has problems relating to a remote camera system that’s supposed to show the flight crew how the refueling process is going. But it struck a deal to have Boeing fix those problems after delivery.
Boeing and the Air Force say the milestone delivery to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., could be made by the end of January.
“We look forward to working with the Air Force, and the Navy, during their initial operational test and evaluation of the KC-46, as we further demonstrate the operational capabilities of this next-generation aircraft across refueling, mobility and combat weapons systems missions,” Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a news release.
Boeing’s chairman, president and CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, said “this is an exciting and historic day for the Air Force and Boeing.”
The KC-46 planes are based on the airframe for Boeing’s commercial 767 jet, and built at Boeing’s factory in Everett, Wash.
Pentagon officials cleared the way for the initial delivery today when they signed off on the DD250 paperwork for aircraft acceptance. Boeing had hoped to make the first delivery by the end of 2018 but missed that timetable.
Some accounts claimed that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ abrupt departure last month resulted in additional complications, but others said that extra time was required to resolve deficiencies that came to light during acceptance testing.
In a statement, the Air Force said it “has identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system.”
“The Air Force has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while initial operational testing and evaluation continues,” the statement said.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, was not involved in the acceptance decision due to conflict-of-interest rules.
Boeing is on contract for 52 of an expected 179 tankers for the Air Force. The first four aircraft are to be delivered to McConnell Air Force Base, and the next four would go to Oklahoma’s Altus Air Force Base, beginning as early as next month.
In addition to the tanker that was accepted today, nine other aircraft are undergoing customer acceptance testing, Boeing said. The remaining contracted aircraft are in production.
The Air Force began the procurement process to replace its oldest KC-135 Stratotankers back in 2001. After a decade of controversy over the process, Boeing won the Air Force’s nod to build the first tanker in 2011. But that contract capped development costs for the first four tankers at $4.9 billion. Boeing had to absorb all costs over that amount.
The pre-tax overruns have mounted to well more than $3 billion, due to snags that were encountered during development. But during a conference call with analysts and journalists last October, Muilenburg said the KC-46 program will be worth all the trouble in the long run.
“We remain very confident in the long-term value of this franchise, a program that is going to have a production run measured in hundreds of airplanes and decades of follow-on support and training,” he said.
Update for 6:50 a.m. ET Jan. 11: Since initial publication, we’ve updated this report with the Air Force’s statement and revised our reference to the KC-46’s remote vision system.