TAK­ING FLIGHT

Tin­ker, Al­tus Air Force bases to see new air­craft’s im­pact

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JACK MONEY Busi­ness Writer jmoney@oklahoman.com

Boe­ing Co. brought more than a dozen re­porters to var­i­ous pro­duc­tion and test­ing fa­cil­i­ties here ear­lier this month to up­date progress it has made to­ward de­liv­er­ing its first group of KC-46A Pe­ga­sus tankers to the U.S. Air Force.

The com­pany con­tracted with the Air Force to de­liver 179 tankers to the mil­i­tary for $44 bil­lion, with an ini­tial sched­ule calling for the first 18 to be de­liv­ered in 2017.

Be­cause of de­sign and test­ing re­lated is­sues, that dead­line has slipped sev­eral times and could slip again.

Still, Boe­ing of­fi­cials told re­porters the firm is close to achiev­ing re­main­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tions it still needs to be­gin send­ing air­craft to the ser­vice.

Leanne Caret, a Boe­ing ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent who leads its De­fense, Space & Se­cu­rity com­po­nent, gave re­porters an up­beat as­sess­ment of the air­craft, its devel­op­ment process and the project’s lead­er­ship team.

“Amaz­ing is a term you will hear me use sev­eral times to­day,” Caret said dur­ing an event with re­porters at Boe­ing’s Everett Mod­i­fi­ca­tion Cen­ter, where mil­i­tary gear is added to the Pe­ga­sus.

“It is amaz­ing, in terms of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties that this air­craft fills; amaz­ing, in terms of the com­mit­ment by our com­pany and most im­por­tantly; amaz­ing, in terms of the re­la­tion­ship we have with the U.S. Air Force.

“First and fore­most, this is about cus­tomer first” to Boe­ing, she con­tin­ued. “This is about de­liv­er­ing it ... so that the men and women who serve have it to meet their needs.”

To Ok­la­homans, the Pe­ga­sus’ de­sign and per­for­mance re­lated de­lays mat­ter, but get­ting sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of the tankers into the Air Force fleet re­mains the big­gest con­cern.

Pe­ga­sus air­crews will train at Al­tus Air Force Base, while the Air Lo­gis­tics Cen­ter at Tin­ker Air Force Base will take care of the planes at a still­be­ing-built main­te­nance cen­ter on the base’s south side.

A long jour­ney

The ef­fort to get Pe­ga­sus into pro­duc­tion fol­lows a long, wind­ing path.

It started in about 2000, when the Air Force de­cided it needed to re­place about 100 of its old­est KC-135s and se­lected Boe­ing’s 767 air frame as a suit­able re­place­ment. The Air Force’s ini­tial in­tent was to lease tanker-equipped mod­els of the air­craft from the man­u­fac­turer, al­though, af­ter crit­i­cisms, it changed those plans to buy most and lease the re­main­der.

Then, a cor­rup­tion scan­dal in­volv­ing a Depart­ment of De­fense em­ployee in that pro­cure­ment process prompted the con­tract’s can­cel­la­tion in 2006.

A sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion asked for con­trac­tors to sub­mit bids to pro­vide the Air Force with 179 new tankers. Boe­ing again of­fered its 767, while Air­bus and Northrop Grum­man teamed up to of­fer the Air­bus A330 as a com­pet­ing air frame.

In Fe­bru­ary 2008, the Depart­ment of De­fense chose Air­bus/Northrop Grum­man for the con­tract. How­ever, protests from Boe­ing led to a re­view of the bid eval­u­a­tion process, and dis­cov­ered ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in­val­i­dated that se­lec­tion.

A third se­lec­tion process ended in early 2011 when the Air Force again se­lected Boe­ing to sup­ply the tankers us­ing its 767 air frame.

The Air Force and Boe­ing com­pleted a crit­i­cal de­sign re­view in August 2013, with the man­u­fac­turer un­der con­tract to build four test air­craft and de­liver 18 com­bat-ready tankers by March 2017.

But in July 2014, a re­view found a por­tion of the Pe­ga­sus’ wiring bun­dles failed to meet Air Force re­dun­dancy re­quire­ments, caus­ing a de­lay of ini­tial test flights and re­quir­ing Boe­ing to record a $272 mil­lion pre­tax charge to cover needed de­sign re­fine­ments.

In July 2015, Boe­ing an­nounced it had dis­cov­ered a num­ber of its fuel sys­tem parts and com­po­nents didn’t meet re­quired spec­i­fi­ca­tions. It recorded an ad­di­tional $835 mil­lion pre­tax charge to pay for re­designs and retrofits.

The suc­cess­ful re­fu­el­ing of an F-16 by a Pe­ga­sus in early 2016 en­abled Boe­ing to be­gin its pro­duc­tion de­sign process.

By then, though, there were con­cerns about whether the man­u­fac­turer could ob­tain needed cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in time to meet re­quired air­craft de­liv­ery dates.

In April 2016, Boe­ing took an­other pre­tax charge for cost over­runs on the pro­gram and for de­lays (it has taken more than $2 bil­lion in charges re­lated to the project, so far).

The de­liv­ery date for the first 18 air­craft sub­se­quently was pushed back to Oc­to­ber of this year, and ap­pears to be poised to slip again. Re­cent bugs de­sign­ers and flight testers have en­coun­tered in­volve still-be­in­gre­solved is­sues with the air­craft’s re­fu­el­ing sys­tem.

First, op­er­a­tors oc­ca­sion­ally have en­coun­tered prob­lems with a re­mote vi­sion sys­tem they use to mon­i­tor re­fu­el­ing in sit­u­a­tions in­volv­ing bright re­flec­tions and deep shad­ows. Those have re­sulted in boom scrap­ings, which are trou­ble­some es­pe­cially for stealthy air­craft.

Sec­ond, they have ob­served oc­ca­sional unan­tic­i­pated dis­con­nects in­volv­ing the air­craft’s drogue re­fu­el­ing sys­tem, which uses a re­tractable hose to ex­tend a shut­tle­cock-shaped re­cep­ta­cle for Navy, Marine and some al­lied air­craft to take fuel from.

Boe­ing re­sponded to the re­mote vi­sion sys­tem prob­lem by bring­ing in spe­cial­ists from across the com­pany who have worked with the tech­nol­ogy in other ap­pli­ca­tions to re­fine its soft­ware. They said tweaks pro­vide op­er­a­tors with work­arounds mak­ing it eas­ier to use.

That soft­ware has been re­vised, is be­ing tested and will be in­stalled on the first air­craft de­liv­ered to the Air Force, com­pany of­fi­cials said.

As for the unan­tic­i­pated dis­con­nects, Boe­ing of­fi­cials said that in­volves soft­ware used to mon­i­tor ten­sion on a re­tractable hose and drogue.

The air­craft tak­ing on fuel is au­to­mat­i­cally dis­con­nected from the drogue whenever the soft­ware senses ten­sion is too great. Again, com­pany of­fi­cials said that will be ad­justed through a soft­ware up­grade to re­cal­i­brate the sys­tem’s pa­ram­e­ters.

“The en­hance­ments are cost­ing the tax­payer noth­ing,” said Mike Gib­bons, Boe­ing’s KC-46 pro­gram man­ager.

On other fronts, Boe­ing and the Air Force have made some progress.

The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion has awarded an Amended Type Cer­tifi­cate to the Pe­ga­sus for its core 7672C con­fig­u­ra­tion, which is a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the com­pany’s com­mer­cial 767-200 with re­vised struc­ture, wiring and plumb­ing.

It also re­cently awarded the Pe­ga­sus a Sup­ple­men­tal Type Cer­tifi­cate that puts the FAA’s ap­proval on the air­craft’s mil­i­tary sys­tems that trans­form the 767 into a tanker.

Ad­di­tional tests are un­der­way to ob­tain the Air Force’s cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that the air­craft will per­form as re­quired with the var­i­ous types of air­craft it will re­fuel (the FAA doesn’t cer­tify that ac­tiv­ity, as it con­sid­ers it a midair col­li­sion).

Jeanette Croppi, the KC-46A’s test pro­gram man­ager, said Boe­ing’s fleet of six test air­craft have com­pleted about 95 per­cent of the work needed to ob­tain the Air Force cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Through May 4, Croppi said those air­craft had com­pleted 950 flights con­sist­ing of nearly 3,000 flight hours, mak­ing about 2,600 con­tacts with other air­craft in­clud­ing the F-16, C-17, KC-135, KC-10, A-10 and F-18.

She said the test air­craft had taken on nearly 1 mil­lion pounds of fuel and dis­pensed nearly 2 mil­lion pounds of fuel while in flight.

“Over the last few years, we’ve come a long way,” Croppi said.

No de­liv­ery date yet

So far, be­yond the six air­craft that are be­ing used for test­ing, Boe­ing has built an ad­di­tional four that are be­ing stored as fi­nal cer­ti­fi­ca­tions are pur­sued.

Dur­ing the me­dia event, an­other four were staged at Boe­ing’s Everett Mod­i­fi­ca­tion Cen­ter un­der­go­ing in­stal­la­tion of their mil­i­tary com­po­nents. Of­fi­cials said there are about three dozen Pe­ga­sus air­craft that ei­ther have been built or are far enough along in con­struc­tion to be rec­og­nized as air­craft.

Ini­tially, Caret told re­porters the com­pany’s in­tent re­mains that it will de­liver 18 Pe­ga­sus air­craft and a smaller num­ber of as­so­ci­ated re­fu­el­ing pods, which also use the hose and drogue sys­tem, by the end of this year.

How­ever, she stopped short of giv­ing a spe­cific date, not­ing Boe­ing and the Air Force are still dis­cussing the is­sue.

As for the pro­gram’s past dif­fi­cul­ties, Caret said Boe­ing re­al­izes clar­ity up front in a con­tract such as the one it en­tered into for the Pe­ga­sus is a ne­ces­sity, given that em­ploy­ees who started the ef­fort are un­likely to be in­volved dur­ing a pro­duc­tion run nearly two decades later.

“I un­der­stand the cus­tomer’s sense of frus­tra­tion, we have it our­selves,” she said.

“This is a team sport. I can as­sure you, from the chair­man of our com­pany to the tech­ni­cian on the floor, this is one team, one fight, and we are do­ing it in part­ner­ship with the U.S. Air Force.

“The Air Force has been stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with us.”

The Oklahoman’s Jack Money trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton state May 3 and 4 as part of a Boe­ing-paid tour that in­volved both its man­u­fac­tur­ing plant where the KC-46A is be­ing built and a Pe­ga­sus pro­to­type. The of­fer was not made or ac­cepted based on any prom­ises for pref­er­en­tial cov­er­age of the com­pany, air­craft or its em­ploy­ees.

THE OKLAHOMAN] [PHOTO BY JACK MONEY,

KC-46A Pe­ga­sus air­craft are staged at Boe­ing’s Everett Mod­i­fi­ca­tion Cen­ter in Everett, Wash., for in­stal­la­tion of their mil­i­tary com­po­nents.

Leanne Caret

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