WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force expects to resolve a safety issue with the cargo capability of its KC-46A Pegasus tanker within “months,” the service’s top acquisition official said Tuesday.
Will Roper said he is “confident” the issue would get fixed and that the problem — which has led the Air Force to stop the tankers from flying with cargo in their holds — was not his top concern for the Boeing-made plane.
“The issue with the locks was identified. We’re working options currently with Boeing and their supplier,” Roper said at a breakfast hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “We’re looking to our operators to tell us which one of the solutions that have been identified is the one that they prefer."
In September, Defense News first reported that the KC-46 was restricted from carrying either cargo or people in the back of the aircraft. The restriction was set after a recent flight where cargo locks on the bottom of the aircraft’s floor became unlocked, creating concerns that airmen could be hurt or killed by heavy equipment that suddenly bursts free during a flight.
It has been a rough year for the KC-46. The Air Force suspended KC-46 flights at Boeing’s production line in Everett, Washington, this February after finding debris. Then it paused all tanker deliveries in March as the service investigated the extent of the problem. The service began accepting tankers again later that month, only for deliveries to stop — and restart — in April due to similar problems.
The cargo issue represents the fourth category 1 deficiency for the tanker, and the issues are becoming increasingly expensive for Boeing: The company is locked into a fixed-price contract, which means it is responsible for paying for a expenses beyond the initial $4.9 billion award for development of the aircraft. So far, the company has paid more than $3.5 billion of its own money to fund corrections to ongoing technical issues. The other three issues are:
- The remote vision system, or RVS — the camera system that allows KC-46 boom operators to steer the boom into a receiver aircraft without having to look out a window and use visual cues — provides imagery in certain lighting conditions that appears warped or misleading. Boeing has agreed to pay for potentially extensive hardware and software fixes, but the Air Force believes it could be up to four years until the system is fully functional.
- The Air Force has recorded instances of the boom scraping against the airframe of receiver aircraft. Boeing and the Air Force believe this problem is a symptom of the RVS’ acuity problems, and that the problem will be eliminated once the camera system is fixed.
- Boeing must redesign the boom to accommodate the A-10 plane, which currently does not generate the thrust necessary to push into the boom for refueling. This problem is a requirements change by the Air Force, which approved Boeing’s design in 2016. Last month, Boeing received a $55.5 million contract to begin work on the new boom actuator.
Roper said the cargo issue “goes into the kind of normal deficiency space” and noted that it’s the type of issue that is discovered by the normal testing process. The more long-term issues, such as the remote visual system, are “the areas I keep the most focus on,” he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
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.