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Air Force projects another months-long delay for Boeing’s tanker

Boeing’s KC-46 (Flickr/Ken Fielding)

The Air Force anticipates yet another delay to Boeing’s KC-46 air refueling tanker program — one that would push out the delivery schedule that’s already 14 months late by up to a further eight months.

It’s the latest in a long line of delays. As Boeing struggles to deliver on a controversy-laden contract that’s worth $40 billion in total, it has already had to swallow about $1 billion in previous cost overruns and has piled up $1.7 billion in accounting write-offs.

In a statement released late Tuesday, the Air Force said it has concluded that although Boeing still hopes to deliver the first tanker aircraft sometime in the second quarter of this year, “the Air Force assesses first aircraft delivery is more likely to occur in late calendar year 2018.”

And first delivery is only the initial step. Boeing’s latest amended contract requires it to deliver 18 tanker aircraft plus two spare engines and 9 sets of wing aerial refueling pods by this October.

Clearly, if the first tanker isn’t delivered until late in the year, there’s no chance of having 18 aircraft delivered plus the extras.

“We don’t think they can make that,” said Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek in an interview. “We are now assessing that all 18 (plus the extras) won’t be delivered until late Spring of 2019.”

“Late Spring means probably June,” Stefanek added.

That would mean a further 8-month delay to the schedule, and put Boeing on course to be a total of 22 months late in delivering the first installment of the Air Force’s tanker order.

Exactly a year ago, the tanker schedule called for the first aircraft delivery in September 2017, with all 18 aircraft in the initial batch, without the wing pods, to have been delivered to the Air Force by last month.

Last May, Boeing showed off the first production tanker that had rolled out, and assured journalists that the program was back on track.

“We expect to hand it over late this year,” Boeing vice president and KC-46 program manager Mike Gibbons said of the first airplane back then.

But after problems arose in flight tests, the first delivery still hasn’t happened.

Certification by the Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA), required to clear the tanker’s military refueling systems for flight, has gone painfully slowly.

And some technical issues surfaced, including that the rigid boom that telescopes out from the bottom of the rear fuselage to deliver fuel was discovered to be scraping receiver aircraft.

In the fall, Boeing re-rescheduled first delivery for “early 2018“ — a target that now appears to have been missed like all the previous targets.

Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said “completing flight testing and incorporating changes (that arise from testing) continues to take us longer than we expected it to.”

A further substantial delay would mean another financial hit for Boeing, which according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report one year ago had already absorbed about $1 billion in cost overruns that went beyond the government cap on development costs of $4.9 billion.

Apart from the cost to Boeing of taking months longer to do the work, Stefanek said the Air Force could also apply penalties to Boeing for further delays.

“We take a look at how much we think the delay has cost the Air Force and then we negotiate with Boeing for additional things we want,” she said.

Boeing is forging ahead, hoping for profits in the years to come.

The Air Force eventually wants a total of 179 KC-46 tanker aircraft and Boeing hopes for more international sales once the first tankers are deployed by the U.S.

On the positive side, Stefanek said that while the problem of the refueling boom scraping the receiving aircraft remains in Pentagon-speak “a Category 1 deficiency, which is the most serious,” this issue won’t necessarily hold up first delivery.

The various technical problems identified in flight test, including that one, “can be worked in parallel” with deliveries, she said.

Boeing’s Ramey said no new technical issues have arisen since last year and he said Boeing remains more optimistic than the Air Force.

He said that, in the end, the first tanker delivery is likely to happen “somewhere in between” Boeing’s second-quarter target and the Air Force’s expectation of late this year.

Ramey characterized the new Air Force projection as a “worst case scenario.”


© 2018 The Seattle Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.