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January 28, 2019 | International, Aerospace

US Air Force receives new KC-46 aircraft, an event decades in the making

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EVERETT, Wash., and MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. — On the chilly morning of Jan. 25, just as the sun was beginning to rise, two KC-46 refueling tankers took offfrom Boeing's Everett, Washington, delivery center and began flying toward McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Later that day, it touched down, to cheers from airmen assigned to the base's 22nd Air Refueling Wing.

It took only minutes for the aircraft to taxi and take to the skies — a welcome lack of drama for a program that has seen prolonged challenges: a virulent competition between two companies, two years of schedule delays and more than $3 billion in cost overrunsthat manufacturer Boeing had to pay out of pocket.

The delivery of the first two KC-46 Pegasus planes was almost two decades in the making. As such, the event was treated as a momentous celebration by Boeing officials, who held a ceremony Thursday marking the occasion with its Air Force customer.

On Friday, Air Force leadership, congressional representatives and Boeing executives witnessed the aircraft's arrival at McConnell for yet another event.

“To me, its personal to bring on this capability,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said after arriving on base. “This is a big day for us.”

“I think we all know the journey over the last several years,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said Thursday. “It hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been hard. But this team stuck to it. This team worked together.”

At the Everett ceremony, Boeing brought in a band to play classic rock songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin before the ceremony, dispersed cookies and chocolate lollipops featuring the KC-46, and had a tanker-themed “selfie station” where visitors could take photos of themselves with the Pegasus on display.

Over the KC-46 flight test program, the aircraft clocked 3,800 hours in the sky and pumped more than 4 billion pounds of fuel, Muilenburg said.

Leanne Caret, who heads Boeing's defense business, said the delivery solidifies the firm's legacy as “the tanker company for the U.S. and the world.”

“We're looking at delivering not only great capability that works today, but we're looking at staying on that leading edge of technology going forward, and we will continue to lean in throughout this process,” she told reporters after the event.

But numerous obstacles remain. Boeing needs to correct the KC-46's deficient remote vision system — the series of cameras and sensors that are the sole source of situational awareness for boom operators trying to move fuel from the tanker to a receiver aircraft. The company is redesigning that system at its own expense, and Caret declined to comment on the projected costs of the upgrades.

In order to hit a contractually obligated milestone, it also needs to move forward with getting wing aerial-refueling pods certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, an event that Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson confirmed will not happen until 2020.

Despite those problems, Air Force officials sounded an optimistic note about the current status of the program.

Wilson, who previously criticized Boeing for seemingly not paying enough attention to the tanker's problems, touted the new capabilities the KC-46 will bring to the tanker force, such as infrared countermeasures, protection against electromagnetic pulses and armor that will make it more survivable in the field.

“This aircraft is able to defend itself in ways that the KC-135 can't. It also has some other capabilities that allow us to refuel completely in the dark,” she said. “So there are things about this aircraft that we're really keen to get into the hands of our airmen.”

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