Boeing plans to start building components for the first U.S. Air Force KC-46A tanker this fall and is looking to begin assembling the first aircraft one year from now.
Since the contract award in February 2011, Boeing officials have been tight-lipped about tanker program activities. During that same period, Air Force officials, publicly and privately, have often said the program is performing well and meeting scheduled milestones.
This week, Maureen Dougherty, Boeing’ KC-46 vice president and program manager, met with some Washington-based reporters to detail some of the progress.
Asked why Boeing officials have been so quiet, Dougherty said: “We felt, but I really felt, it was critically important to spend this year ensuring that we had a solid foundation.”
Boeing’s budget estimates for the program have not changed, she said.
The Pentagon’s KC-46A selected acquisition report, a document that provides extensive details of the program’s cost and performance, said the company projects the tanker development phase to cost $5.1 billion, which is $300 million above the Defense Department’s $4.8 billion contract ceiling price.
Dougherty declined to discuss Boeing’s cost estimate, but said: “We have not changed our projection. At this stage of the game, we’re performing very well to plan and we have no reason to change the projection at this time.”
In the 16 months following the Air Force selection of the Boeing-made tanker, the company has finalized the aircraft design and has set up five development laboratories.
“We’ll be doing a lot of testing … starting in October over the course of the next couple of years before we ever get to an airplane,” Dougherty said.
A number of labs will develop boom software and other components. A lighting lab and a wet fuel lab will also perform boom work.
“Software … on every major, complex program can be challenging,” she said. “On this program, it’s more about integrating the software versus the development of the software because we are using a lot of existing software in the commercial arena and in the military arena and just making the modifications we need to integrate them.”
The Pentagon’s selected acquisition report said the Air Force tanker program office is “closely tracking software as a program risk, but there are no significant software-related issues with the program at this time.”
The refueling boom on the new tanker is based on the current KC-10 boom.
“We have some increased requirements from the KC-10, [such as] a greater envelope that we need to be able to move the boom through and deliver fuel,” Dougherty said.
The system must be able to transfer 1,200 gallons per minute. The boom must also meet Federal Aviation Administration and military requirements put in place since the KC-10 boom was built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Boeing has already received commercial avionics that will be used in the program’s integration lab and part of a boom. Program officials are also frequently meeting with suppliers.
“[Suppliers are] all working in tandem so that we can populate the labs in the fall and then begin building boom assembly, also in the fall,” Dougherty said.
The company plans to build the aircraft on the existing commercial 767 production line in Everett, Wash., and perform finishing work at Boeing Field in Seattle.
The engineering and manufacturing development phase of the program includes four tankers. Two of these aircraft will go through FAA and military testing and the other two will be used for refueling testing.