WASHINGTON — Boeing has officially begun assembly on its first KC-46 tanker.
Workers loaded the first wing spar for the plane Wednesday, a small but important first step towards producing a complete KC-46. The spur, 82 feet and five inches long, helps support the weight of the wing. Although not the most prominent piece of the plane, it marks actual production on a plane Air Force officials have maintained is desperately needed.
“The Air Force is really excited and pleased that our No. 1 modernization priority has begun fabrication and entered the factory at Everett,” Maj. Gen. John Thompson, US Air Force Program Executive Officer for Tankers, said in a statement distributed by Boeing. “The Boeing team continues to make significant progress in the KC-46 development program.”
“We are building on the strong partnership that the Air Force and Boeing have developed during the past two years,” Maureen Dougherty, Boeing vice president and KC-46 Tanker program manager, said in the statement “From the enhanced flight deck to the modernized boom, our tanker will provide unequaled capabilities that will allow it to offload more fuel and carry more passengers, cargo and medical patients.”
The KC-46 will enter begin its critical design review (CDR) in July, and if no problems are found during that review period, Boeing expects to roll out the first complete tanker in January.
Based on Boeing’s 767-200ER commercial plane, the KC-46 program will produce 179 new planes to replace the aging KC-135 tanker fleet, with 18 tankers expected by 2017 and production ending in 2027.
Air Force officials have identified the new tanker as one of its three key modernization priorities, alongside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new long-range bomber. The KC-46 program is the first part of a three-stage process that will eventually replace the entire US Air Force tanker fleet. USAF officials expect to begin work on the second step, known as the KC-Y, sometime next summer.