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Air Force leadership confident in KC-46 program

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force program executive officer for tankers briefed Air Force and industry leaders on the KC-46A Pegasus's production progress and acquisition timeline at the Air Force Association's Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition here Sept. 16.

After it received its official name "Pegasus" in February, the 6th generation tanker construction is progressing toward a flightline debut in 2015, Maj. Gen. John Thompson said.

"One of the hallmarks of this program was stable funding, and stable performance," Thompson reported. "I can't thank (Air Force and Defense Department leaders) enough, who have ensured funding stability is paramount."

Based on the Boeing's 767 design, four developmental KC-46As are beginning to take shape at their construction location in Washington, he said, and despite government shutdown and sequestration, funding requirements have been met.

As a result, the program office expects an initial expectation of 179 aircraft with delivery of the first 18 tankers by 2017, he said, with a production ramp-up of 15 aircraft per year to follow through 2027.

For five decades, the KC-135 Stratotanker has been the backbone of air refueling, Thompson noted. Originally acquired as an interim solution to an urgent need for increased global mobility, 4,000 of the originally 700 produced KC-135 are still in service, but efforts to increase service life are making the airframe untenable from a cost and capability standpoint.

"In fact, we're quickly approaching the timeframe where there will be no pilot, in the active duty, Guard or Reserve, who is older than the airplane he or she is flying," he said. "That's not bad for an interim tanker -- while the air force develops a dedicated tanker to escort the bombers on their strategic missions."

Likewise, with KC-10 Extenders' service averaging over 28 years, the KC-46A is a long-anticipated first step in recapitalizing the aging tanker fleet, Thompson explained, adding the new aircraft will bolster U.S. global mobility as an improved operating platform for 2,800 total-force tanker pilots and 1,500 boom operators.

"Every day, those crews, along with the maintainers, push out an average of 150 sorties a day, with higher numbers during contingencies around the world," Thompson said. "We refuel, on average 450 receiver aircraft, of (joint), allied and coalition partners around the world ... We need to give those crews, the boom operators and maintainers on the ground, a new capability."

Besides offering operators vastly increased fuel carrying capacity, flow rates, and boom and drogue refueling on the same sortie, Thompson said the new airframe boasts improved efficiency, increased cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities.

"It's a multi-role capability (aircraft)," Thompson said. "Its primary mission is aerial refueling, but it's very, very capable (for a variety of missions)."

The tanker, he added, will also offer receiver air refueling, improved force protection and an entire main deck floor that can be reconfigured for seated passengers or aeromedical evacuation needs.

To prevent design issues, Thompson said the program established five systems integration labs to conduct ground-based, risk-mitigation tests prior to flight testing.

"One of the tenets of this program was to have robust system integration labs on the ground to burn down risk before flight testing," Thompson said, adding that technical performance overall remains on track.

The wet fuels lab, for example, recently demonstrated the anticipated 400-gallon fuel flow rate, Thompson said. Another, the lighting and camera lab, tests the electronic refueling control system that will place the boom operator in front of a computer console near the flight deck instead of a window in the back of the aircraft.

"There are more lights on the underside of this tanker than there are antennae on this aircraft," he said. "Boeing established the lab to validate, prove and demonstrate the capability for all-weather, daytime, nighttime and covert refueling missions."

Thompson acknowledged the complexity of the Pegasus' advanced construction did pose a few production challenges this year when engineers found internal wiring for redundant aircraft systems were placed too close to one another, risking the loss of essential systems in an emergency.

"Wiring that represents redundancy cannot be placed next to each other in the same bundle," he said. "Your back-up has to be in another physical location on the aircraft so that if one gets taken out, you don't lose the capability."

While a commercial version of a Boeing 767 aircraft contains about 70 miles of wiring, Thompson said the military KC-46 version will require about 120 miles. Because of this, the relocation and installation of new bundles impacted the assembly and testing timeline, resulting in "slower than planned" delivery.

"This is not a big performance issue, it's a compliance issue and something we'd rather catch early than later, while it only requires a minor redesign," he said. "But ... we're eager to get into flight testing and unfortunately this production challenge (has taken some) of our schedule margin, so schedule performance has to improve."

Once the assembly returns to schedule, officials will return to a "test once" strategy intended to better leverage a single test event to accomplish multiple certifications before flight.

"We're still a top-three modernization program and requirements and funding stability have been great so far," Thompson said. "We have a great plan for training and we're confident we're overcoming a recent spate of production issues. We're really eager to get this aircraft."

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