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Air Force halts deliveries of Boeing tankers for second time

Heather Wilson, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Dec. 6, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

The Air Force is again refusing to accept Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus tankers after the company failed to resolve issues with tools and parts erroneously left in the plane’s compartments, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told lawmakers Tuesday.

The tankers, based on a 767 commercial jet, are the latest problem for the domestic aerospace giant, which has been under intense scrutiny since the recent fatal crashes of two 737 Max planes.

“We actually stopped again the acceptance of the KC-46s because of foreign object debris we found in some closed compartments,” Wilson said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

Wilson said the Air Force has a “corrective action in place,” including ensuring the production line “is being run the way it needs to be run.”

The KC-46 is built in Everett, Wash., while the 737 Max planes are assembled 40 miles south in Renton, Wash. The problems with the tanker are unrelated to the 737 crashes, but nonetheless threaten to further undermine Boeing’s reputation and its bottom line even as one of its former executives, Patrick Shanahan, serves as acting Defense secretary.

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Boeing has paid the government more than $3 billion for delays and cost overruns on the tanker program. Initially scheduled for 2017, the Air Force received its first KC-46 in January.

In February, it stopped taking delivery of the KC-46 and the fleet was grounded after tools and other extraneous parts were found on the planes. The “foreign object debris” can pose a safety hazard, and can also damage the planes. The Air Force resumed the deliveries of the tankers on March 11.

“We continue to work with Boeing to ensure that every aircraft delivered meets the highest quality and safety standards,” the Air Force said in a statement. This week our inspectors identified additional foreign object debris and areas where Boeing did not meet quality standards.”

The Air Force made its second decision to stop accepting the planes on March 23, the statement said.

“I know you had made some pretty optimistic projections about full delivery,” Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney told Wilson during Tuesday’s hearing. “It just seems that these keep getting in the way.”

Courtney is chairman of the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces Subcommittee, which oversees the massive tanker program. His Connecticut district is also home to Pratt & Whitney, which provides the engine for the tankers.

In a statement, Boeing said that resolving the issue is a priority, and it has implemented additional training and more rigorous clean-as-you-go practices across the company.

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“Boeing is committed to delivering FOD-free aircraft to the Air Force. Although we’ve made improvements to date, we can do better,” the statement said.

After the hearing, Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, called the ongoing issues with debris “very concerning.”

“We’re so far behind with this tanker that you worry about time and you worry about quality control,” he said. “The problem was there, they stopped delivery, they said they had it fixed, and then they didn’t.”

The tanker program, long mired in controversy, has been a top Air Force priority for years. Congress approved $2.4 billion to buy 15 of the jets this year, and the Air Force has requested another $2.3 billion for 12 KC-46 tankers in fiscal 2020.

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