WASHINGTON — Boeing's KC-46 tanker has successfully deployed two systems integral to aerial refueling, marking a step toward proving the new plane can conduct its core mission.

In an Oct. 8 test, Boeing's test aircraft successfully extended the "drogue" refueling baskets from both the centerline drogue system, located on the belly of the fuselage, and from the wing aerial refueling pods, located on the wing tips. During an in-flight refueling, the aircraft receiving fuel will connect to the drogue, which trails from the tanker via a flexible hose, through a "probe," a rigid, retractable arm placed on the receiver aircraft's nose or fuselage. This will allow fuel to pass from tanker to receiver aircraft.

The next day, the test plane extended the "boom," a rigid, telescoping tube that an operator on the tanker aircraft extends to and inserts into a receptacle on the receiving aircraft.

"The core mission of Pegasus is to fuel the fight, so deploying the boom and drogues signals real progress toward demonstrating the ability to pass fuel in flight," said Brig. Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, program executive officer for Tankers at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, according to an Oct. 12 Boeing statement. "This sets the stage for the main act, which is hooking up to and refueling an aircraft in flight."

The boom is the Air Force standard for in-flight refueling, with a planned 1,200 gallons-per-minute transfer rate from the KC-46. Air Force helicopters and all Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, on the other hand, use the probe-and-drogue method of refueling.

Boeing's new tanker will be able to conduct boom and drogue refueling on a single mission without landing to reconfigure, according to the statement.

"These capability gains are vital to the tanker mission in support of Global Reach and Global Power providing the U.S. military the ability to extend the range of aircraft to respond wherever it's called to duty," said Col. Christopher Coombs, KC-46 system program manager, according to the statement. "This tanker will be able to refuel any fixed wing aircraft or helicopter in the DoD fleet, while being able to take on fuel itself."

After repeated delays, Boeing's tanker completed first flight Sept. 25, allowing the team to move forward with flight tests. This event keeps Boeing on track for a Milestone C decision, formal approval from the Pentagon for production, between January and April 2016. Full-up aerial refueling flights as planned as part of Milestone C testing.

The Air Force plans to buy 179 KC-46A tankers to recapitalize its aging tanker fleet. Boeing must deliver 18 full-up tankers by August 2017.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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