EVERETT, Wash. — While the Air Force’s first two KC-46A air refuelers departed Boeing’s [BA] Everett, Washington facility bound for McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas on Friday, they took off with two technical issues still unresolved.
However, Boeing and Air Force officials expressed confidence Thursday that those issues will be fixed before the next key milestone is set to occur in summer 2020 and asserted that the KC-46A Pegasus was nonetheless ready to enter operational testing and evaluation.
Bloomberg News first reported Jan. 23 that the required assets available (RAA) milestone – which includes 18 aircraft and nine wing air refueling pods – would occur in 2020, rather than 2019 as was originally reported, based on predictions from the Defense Department’s Defense Contract Management Agency.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson confirmed to reporters on Thursday that RAA was now scheduled for summer 2020. Boeing officials told reporters that the company would deliver the 18 aircraft this year, but continue to work through qualification and flight tests of the wing air refueling pods, or WARPs.
“RAA is still something we’re in discussions with the Air Force about, when we’re going to actually have those [WARPS] fully certified,” Mike Gibbons, Boeing KC-46A tanker vice president and general manager said Thursday. “Until we finish that discussion with the Air Force, I can’t give you a date.”
Sean Martin, the company’s chief aerial refueling officer, said Boeing is hard at work with WARP manufacturer Cobham to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification, and that the goal is to be completed by the end of 2019. However, “the Air Force will decide when they are ready to accept the first pods,” he added.
Boeing is also continuing to work through an issue involving the Remote Vision System (RVS) that allows the KC-46 operator to surveil refueling operations in the air. Gibbons said the fix will involve both hardware and software upgrades, including more automatic adjustment that will help improve glare and shadow issues in the system that have slightly distorted the view of refueling planes in tests.
“We can do that, but it does require more than just software,” Gibbons said. He did not provide any details as to when a software fix may be ready, or how the company plans to adjust the hardware elements.
“Everything is open at this point,” he added. Boeing is paying for the RVS fix, and the Air Force has said it will withhold a portion of the payment for the initial 52 aircraft until the company successfully meets nine technical parameters, Wilson said.
Boeing officials emphasized that the RVS was functional enough for Air Force operators to begin training, testing and evaluations.
“If it was insufficient, [the Air Force] would not be able to take the jet,” Gibbons said. “It is a remote vision system that allows them to take the jet and start to learn how to operate” it.
Wilson added that the system is “safe and usable as it is” and that the Air Force and Boeing agreed on several workarounds as the solutions are being developed, such as changing the angle of the refueling track so it is not directly in line with the sun glint.
The RVS is supplied by Rockwell Collins, which is now part of United Technologies Corp. [UTX].
The second outstanding issue involves the aerial refueling boom, which Boeing built to the standards set by the Air Force, but has had issues disconnecting to the fairly lightweight A-10 attack aircraft.
The Air Force will be paying for the boom solution. Wilson on Thursday called it “a fairly simple fix,” but will entail a redesign of the actuator, she added.
The boom change is “the first program change request on this aircraft … which is pretty amazing for an acquisition like this,” Wilson said.
The Air Force expects to find additional issues as it enters into the operational testing and evaluation phase, but does not anticipate halting future deliveries, Wilson noted. “That’s just the nature of a program this large. And as we find those, we’ll work with Boeing to correct them,” she said.