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Boeing still has the MAX grounded, it shuts down its manufacturing operations in Seattle, has next to no orders for its commercial aircraft, seriously negative cash flow and declines the US government offer of a bailout. That’s quite a few issues to deal with. But the American manufacturer has yet another problem—this time with its KC-46 Pegasus tanker aircraft.

The KC-46 is a replacement for the venerable KC-135 Stratotankers. Incredibly the KC-135 is based on the 707 airframe which retired from US civilian service in 1983. The KC-46 is built around the 767-200ER airframe, but with uprated engines, improved avionics and many other enhancements. It can double as a passenger aircraft with 114 seats and even as an aeromedical evacuation aircraft, but its primary role is a refueller carrying about 96 metric tons of fuel. There are a total of 179 on order, with deliveries up to 2027.

Despite Boeing having already delivered 33 to the US Air Force, there’s one problem.

KC-46 Pegasus Tanker ©USANG

They don’t work. The Air Force has identified 159 outstanding ‘noncompliances’ with the aircraft, and up until now has retained 20% of the value of each aircraft until Boeing fixes them. That amounts to a fair amount; $882 million to be exact.

There are four so-called ‘Category 1’ deficiencies—problems with a significant impact on operations or safety, but they boil down to two categories.

  • The Remote Vision System—or RVS—that allows the operator to manoeuvre the refuelling boom to the receiving aircraft. In older tankers, the operator looked through a window at the back of the aircraft and adjusted the boom with a joystick. In the KC-46 the operator is in the front of the tanker and uses a camera and sensor array to guide the boom. But in some lighting situations; in blue sky and with the sun directly ahead or behind the aircraft the picture is distorted. Several mishaps have occurred with the boom striking the receiving aircraft.

This is not good. Boeing is carrying out a patch-up approach to the current system but is obligated to retrofit all aircraft with a completely new system. This won’t be ready until 2023. The present boom doesn’t fit the A-10 either.

KC-46 © USAF

  • The KC-46 leaks fuel. It’s not supposed to. Boeing has found the solution and it takes about 10 days to fix each aircraft. So far seven of the 16 needing repair have been fixed.

So, quite rightly, the US Airforce has withheld the $882 million until Boeing fixes the defective aircraft. Now, it’s been revealed that the USAF will pay over the money to help out Boeing as a result of their struggles with the coronavirus.

It’s almost as if Boeing can’t be allowed to fail. But surely someone’s responsible? It seems not, at least not yet.

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