Boeing Faces 'Challenging Road' to Delivering KC-46A Tanker

 - April 12, 2016, 4:08 PM
The first "full-up" KC-46A tanker of four prototypes lands at Boeing Field, Seattle, on Sept. 25, 2015 after first flight. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing has a “challenging road ahead” to finish developmental testing of the KC-46A tanker before delivering it to the U.S. Air Force, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In response, the manufacturer expressed confidence that it will fulfill its commitment to the service.

In an April report to Congress, the GAO said that due to developmental problems, Boeing has burned through its schedule reserve and faces a compressed time frame to deliver 18 production tankers to the Air Force by August 2017, as specified under its 2011 engineering and manufacturing development contract. The parties have subsequently revised the program schedule to extend the developmental flight-test phase by a year and compress deliveries to six months instead of 14.

Originally, Boeing was to complete developmental flight testing and deliver four aircraft to the Air Force for operational testing in April and May. It would also bring the four developmental aircraft to production standard and deliver those with 14 other production tankers to the Air Force by August 2017. Under the revised schedule, developmental flight testing has been pushed to May 2017, with deliveries scheduled from March through August that year. During that time frame, Boeing will deliver two more production tankers than originally planned.

“Boeing has a challenging road ahead to complete testing and deliver aircraft,” the GAO said. “Test officials believe Boeing’s test schedule is optimistic and it may not have all aircraft available when needed to complete planned testing…Program officials estimate there are four months of schedule risk to delivering 18 aircraft by August 2017 due to testing and parts qualification issues.” The developmental test program comprises some 700 ground and flight-test activities; as of January Boeing had completed 114, the agency said.

The first 18 tankers will be supplied in two production lots. The Air Force delayed making a “Milestone C” decision to begin low-rate initial production (LRIP) by nine months, and now expects to render that decision next month. In anticipation of the service exercising options for the first two production lots, Boeing started building LRIP aircraft “using its own resources,” the GAO said.

The agency described three major development challenges that contributed to the delayed LRIP decision. On the first development aircraft, Boeing encountered “wire separation issues” caused by an incorrect wiring design. An audit revealed the problem affected about 45 percent of the 1,700 wire bundles on the aircraft, which needed to be changed. Wiring installation on the remaining three aircraft was suspended until the issue was resolved. Second, Boeing identified several aerial refueling parts that needed to be redesigned, causing a delay to the first flight of the second aircraft. Third, a mislabeled fuel substitute provided by a distributor—which actually contained an industrial cleaner that is destructive to aluminum—damaged the fuel system on the second aircraft and further delayed its first flight.

The GAO also reported that Federal Aviation Administration certification of the KC-46A’s Cobham-supplied centerline drogue system and wing aerial refueling pods has been delayed by more than three years, and is now expected in July 2017. “The supplier…built the systems without following FAA processes,” the agency said. “Consequently, the supplier was told by the FAA in late 2014 that the FAA would need to inspect the individual parts to ensure design conformance.”

Boeing projected confidence that it will meet the requirements of the Air Force contract. In a statement emailed to AIN, the manufacturer said: “Boeing still expects to meet the August 2017 RAA (required assets available)” date. “We are making steady progress in flight test and aircraft production and are confident we are taking the right steps to fulfill our commitment to the Air Force. As has also been noted, we have already started building the first low-rate initial production aircraft, and continue to take a hard look at the schedule for opportunities to incorporate efficiencies and lessons learned.”