Why is Boeing rushing to get the new KC-46 refueling tanker on its first flight before the year ends?

The aircraft giant has to if they don’t want their overrun costs to balloon further in its current $1.5 billion mark above the contract ceiling of $4.9 billion for the initial development phase. As it is, Boeing had stretched out the original flight schedule of the new 767 jet that will be the refueling tanker KC-46 for the US Air Force by six months. And with every day of delay, their costs are steeply rising.

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First Test Plane To Fly Before Year End
And that sent Boeing engineers and workers to scramble and work feverishly to get the first prototype plane which is a commercial aircraft modified but without the refueling systems that would make it a tanker up in the air by December 27 or 28, or just before year end.

Chick Ramey, spokesman for Boeing said that the tanker team of engineers and workers are aggressively carrying out plans to mitigate risks and lower costs.  And since it’s a fixed price contract, the US government will bear no additional expense or cost.

Insiders from Boeing who have knowledge of the program leaked information that the Everett factory has workers working feverishly to resolve remaining issues but are under strict instructions to get the first plane to make its first flight, even with minimum capability.

Such wasn’t an issue with the US Air Force, as Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, Air Force head of the tanker program, indicated that their priorities are the same as Boeing’s – to get the plane up in the air this month.

First Flight: First Public Milestone
The test flight would be the first public milestone for the program. Boeing is set to deliver 179 refueling tankers to the Air Force, for which it will receive $51 billion. The first plane’s flight will mark the beginning of flight tests for four test aircraft.

First Test Plane: Modified 767 Commercial Aircraft
The first plane is just the basic 767 platform, without the military systems such as the air-to-air refueling boom, to make it a tanker. The modified 767 commercial aircraft has:

  • A strengthened airframe
  • A 787-style cockpit
  • Four extra fuel tanks in the cargo bay
  • Plumbing and wiring to support the tanker mission

Manufacturing And Development Issues Caused The Delay
Unfortunately, Boeing had several issues that caused the delay. And even after the completion of the new airframes for all four test aircraft this year, Boeing engineers and workers had to remove and install the complex wiring systems in the first airplane a number of times. According to Richardson, it required a redesign of the wiring system caused by the redundant wire bundles which control the critical systems independently not adequately separated.

Wiring Adjustments And Redesign
When that issue was resolved, Boeing had to make further adjustments in order for the wires to physically fit into the different crevices and bends in the airframe. The painstaking wiring process for the first test plane has tremendously delayed the initial flight and added $425 million in unexpected expenses which the company must absorb. Due to the delay, a detailed revised schedule will be submitted by Boeing to the Air Force in February.

Some other routine issues being tackled prior to the test flight included a problem in starting the engines using the Auxiliary Power Unit in the tail of the airplane. However, Boeing insiders said that the engineers are ready with a fix.

First Flight Test Results Will Shape The Tanker’s Future In The Market
The success of the first test flight will shape the potential revenue stream for Boeing as the company anticipates follow-un orders from both the US Air Force and international customers such as South Korea. That would potentially make up for the high overrun costs incurred for the development phase. Boeing is said to be building a total of about 400 to 500 aircraft to serve to other interested customers.

Next Steps Until Production
By April, the next milestone is the first flight of the second test aircraft – this time the aircraft will be outfitted with air-to-air refueling systems making it the first real KC-46 tanker taking flight.

The FAA certification process requires two test planes with the baseline 767 platform, without the refueling systems. The other two test planes with the air-to-air refueling systems will be used to test the military systems for certification that the tanker is ready to refuel a variety of receiver planes and this will be done by summer 2015. If that is successful, Pentagon will give the green light for Boeing to begin building the first production tankers.

This means, the tanker-trained US Air Force pilots with their noise reduction military headsets on would be flight-ready for the first 18 tankers to be deployed in 2017. For this to happen, Boeing must hand over the first KC 46 tanker to the Air Force for testing and evaluation by fall 2016.

Will the first test plane pass the first flight test?

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