COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force has decided to start accepting KC-46 tankers from Boeing again after the discovery of foreign debris halted production for the second time, the service’s top weapons buyer said Tuesday.
But before that happens, all KC-46s will now be subject to stringent inspections that will scrutinize all sealed compartments of the plane for foreign object debris, or FOD. That includes tankers already delivered to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and Altus Air Force Base, Okla., which will have to have their fuel tanks drained so that personnel can climb in and determine whether FOD is present.
“The planes that we have out on the field will have to go to a Boeing facility and have these significant inspections done on them. We’re working that in coordination right now,” Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters on the sidelines of the Space Symposium here.
“The FOD that we’ve found poses no safety of flight risk. It’s well within what DCMA [Defense Contracts Management Agency] finds on many aircraft programs. But it’s not acceptable to have it on a new aircraft that we bought. We want clean aircraft, and we expect Boeing to do the inspections on their nickel and get us aircraft that were the ones that we contracted for."
Roper approved the new inspection plan on Friday. Although the Air Force is still working with Boeing to figure out the exact timing of when deliveries will restart, Roper said he anticipates the service accepting two new tankers next Friday, pending the timing of fuel tank inspections.
It’s unclear how long it will take for Boeing to recheck the KC-46s that have already delivered. Roper said the goal is to minimize any impact on training. One option involves swapping an already delivered aircraft with one that is coming off the production line, but the service’s acquisition wing is waiting for Air Mobility Command head Gen. Maryanne Miller to weigh in with how much risk she is willing to expect.
“What we don’t want to do is pull airplanes out in an ad-hoc fashion and deny them that training,” he said. “When they tell me, ‘Here are the number of airplanes that I need at McConnell, here is what I need at Altus,’ we can put the optimal plan together.”
The Air Force stopped accepting KC-46s on March 23 after finding FOD in closed compartments on a tanker moving through Boeing’s Everett production facility. This followed a previous stoppage that spanned from Feb. 21 to March 11 due to multiple occurrences of FOD.
In a statement, Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said that the company remains focused on ensuring future aircraft are delivered to the Air Force without foreign debris.
“We’ve seen good progress as the result of our action plans and are coordinating with the Air Force on timing for the next delivery,” he said.
So far seven tankers have been delivered to Altus and McConnell, with the latter receiving the first ever KC-46 in January. Boeing officials were bullish about the delivery schedule then, saying it was within the realm of possibility that the Air Force will accept 36 tankers by the year’s end.
Despite the numerous problems with FOD that have been discovered, Roper added that he was pleased by the response of Boeing officials.
“To be frank, they’re embarrassed by this issue, but the only way that they can implement their changes is if we get the line flowing again,” he said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.