The pre-KC-46A on its maiden flight on 28 December 2014 (Image © Boeing)

First flight: Boeing KC-46 makes curtain call

The curtains were about to close on 2014, but in the end Boeing did on Sunday 28 December what it commited to earlier this year. From the Boeing Everett facility at Paine Field near Seattle, the first KC-46A Pegasus took the skies at 9:30 AM local time for a flight to nearby Boeing Field, where it landed safely after systems testing and being in the air for 3 hours and 32 minutes.  The flight will no doubt be heralded as a milestone for the US Air Force’s troubled KC-X program. But in reality, the KC-46A has yet to fly.

What rotated from Paine Field’s runway, was a Boeing 767-200 registered N461FT and wearing a standard grey US Air Force coat of paint, albeit without titles. And what’s more importantly missing, is the equipment needed for its air-to-air refueling role.The KC-46A will use 3D camera technology for air refueling operations. The new tanker will feature both the boom and drogue methods to deliver the “gas” to other airborne aircraft.

The first fully equipped flight is still at least nine months away. Three more aircraft will follow, after which serial production of about 179 KC-46A tankers should begin. Starting 2017, they will replace the dozens and dozens of old, battered Boeing KC-135s that formed the backbone of US air-to-air refueling capability for decades. Also, the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender will make way for the KC-46A. Poland is mentioned as a likely export customer. Modified tanker versions of the Boeing 767 are already in service with Italy, Japan and Colombia, and soon Brazil.

A realistic scenario? (Image © Boeing)
A realistic scenario? (Image © Boeing)

Troubled
The KC-X/KC-46 program has a troubled history, however. If the US wasn’t overly protective of its own economy, the KC-135 and KC-10 would already be retired to the Arizona desert, with Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft taking their place. Initially, in 2003 Boeing indeed won the bid for the program, but fraud was involved and prison sentences were given to those involved.

The contract was canceled, and a new bid opened. In February 2008, the Pentagon awarded the contract to Northrop Grumman and Airbus Defense & Space, who had entered the A330 MRTT – aka KC-45 – together. Following a Boeing protest, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the selection and in the end recommended a new bid. In February 2011, Boeing finally had its way and was awarded the KC-X contract.

Wiring
Since then, the program hasn’t been without delays. Most prominent was the wiring in the first aircraft, that needed replacements because of malfunctions. The delays are causing a cost overrun of 1.5 billion USD over the original program development budget of 4.9 billion USD. It’s therefore no wonder Boeing felt the need the get first airplane flying before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the A330 MRTT has been providing useful service with several air forces worldwide, such as the Royal Air Force – as Airheadsfly.com found during an exclusive visit. The question whether the KC-46A can achieve that same milestone, remains unanswered for some time to come.

© 2014 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest

The pre-KC-46A on its maiden flight on 28 December 2014 (Image © Boeing)
The pre-KC-46A on its maiden flight on 28 December 2014 (Image © Boeing)