Micah Knight/Managing Editor
On the afternoon of Friday, September 25, a charcoal grey aircraft lifted off from Boeing’s Paine Field runway in Everett, Washington. The aircraft was the KC-46 “Pegasus,” the first flight of a new generation of aerial refueling tankers.
During the flight, Boeing engineers and an Air Force team tested the engines, flight controls, and environmental systems before taking the plane to its maximum altitude of 35,000 feet. After a four-hour flight, the first KC-46 landed at Boeing Field in Seattle.
The Air Force’s current aerial refueling tanker fleet, comprised of KC-135 Stratotankers is over 50 years old – it was introduced in 1957, and the last one was produced in 1965. The older the planes get, the more maintenance, overhaul time, and cost is required to maintain the fleet. KC-135 operations and support costs were about $2.2 billion in 2003, and are projected to grow to $5.1 billion for 2017.
In 2003, the Air Force began slowly replacing KC-135 tankers with leased Boeing 767 airframes, which were modified to be tankers. However, the lease contract was much more expensive than it would have cost to purchase the planes, and allegations of corruption were filed. An investigation discovered that an Air Force procurement officer was negotiating a job with Boeing while negotiating contracts with the company. Boeing’s CFO was terminated, the CEO resigned, and the company paid $615 million in fines.
In 2006 the Air Force requested proposals for a new tanker aircraft program. After considering a 777-based tanker model, Boeing finally decided to modify the 767 into a tanker and went through a number of revisions before their final bid.
After a lengthy selection process, in 2011 the Air Force announced the selection of Boeing’s “KC-767” aircraft for the KC-135 replacement program. The new model of aircraft would have the military designation KC-46 “Pegasus.”
The KC-46 has a cargo deck above the refueling system, allowing it to carry more passengers and cargo than the KC-135. The passenger space gives it room to be a useful medical evacuation aircraft. The Pegasus can hold more fuel than the Stratotanker, though not a substantial amount more, and can fuel any U.S., allied, or coalition aircraft equipped with midair refueling capability.
The pilots are given 15-in, 787-style advanced electronic displays to optimize flight parameters, and the refueling boom operator has a 24-inch display with a 3-D picture. The modern avionics will make the plane simpler and easier for pilots to fly, rather than having to learn 50-year old cockpit layouts and avionics.
Boeing will produce 179 of the tankers by 2027 as the first stage of the Air Force’s KC-135 replacement project. It is still to be determined what the Air Force will do in the coming decades to replace the rest of the fleet, but some KC-135s may be in service for 100 years before being replaced.
Boeing initially modified 767 airframes before reconfiguring the airframes for the KC-46. The KC-46 had a wiring issue in 2014 which set the program back several months. The first flight comes seven months after schedule, but the aircraft is scheduled to perform aerial refueling with various Air Force planes later this year. Boeing and the Air Force have announced that the goal of the delivery of 18 tankers by August 2017 will still be met.