Boeing recently got some good news about its KC-46 tanker, but this was tempered by an embarrassing problem, with an unusual temporary fix.
Boeing continues to have a lot on its plate. The manufacturer is still negotiating the way out of its 787 production issues with the FAA. It is trying to avoid further delays with the certification of the 777X. Also, Boeing should finalize the certification of the 737-7 later this year. And there are worries about more delays and regulatory issues regarding the bigger 737-10.
But another landmark program for the aircraft manufacturer is its KC-46 air refuelling tanker. And in addition to being somewhat embarrassing in itself, this latest piece of news comes at what should have been a good time for Boeing. It now seems that Boeing may not have to fight Airbus AND Lockheed Martin, for a new air tanker program.
We expected to hear news about a ‘KC-Y’ tanker competition, following the ‘KC-X’ competition that Boeing won with the KC-46. Airbus lost last time around, with a version of its MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport), aka KC-45. This time, Airbus is partnering with Lockheed, the world’s largest defence contractor.
KC-46 Tanker – First The Good News
Many believed that the US Air Force now wants a larger aircraft. This would put the A330-based MRTT (or LMXT) at an advantage. But in March, Air Force Secretary Kendall told reporters that the upcoming tanker competition will likely be “…a modified KC-46”. If there is an official confirmation of this, it will be a relief for Boeing.
But the manufacturer will also have to solve the problems plaguing this aircraft. An issue with the vision system (that the refueller uses to see planes receiving fuel) is keeping the KC-46 tanker from being operational in war zones. Boeing has been trying to move past a number of other early embarrassing problems, like abandoned tools in delivered aircraft. So this latest issue is causing a lot of red faces.
This is not a problem that has to do with the role of the KC-46 as a tanker. Rather, it relates to the role of the basic Boeing 767 that this aircraft is a variant of. The KC-46 has one over-wing emergency exit on each wing. This is because the plane can still carry passengers, in addition to carrying fuel and cargo.
The KC-46 first flew in 2015, entering limited service in 2019. But in the time since, these over-wing emergency exits got very little attention. Normally, any issues relating to these and other doors, reveal themselves during an aircraft’s certification. But as a military air refuelling tanker, the KC-46 didn’t have to undergo passenger evacuation testing.
On the 17th of March, Boeing discovered that a piece of interior trim is keeping the over-wing exits from opening. It is not clear if this is a problem that immediately affects the aircraft or one that materializes over time. But according to reports, this piece of trim hangs down above the door, keeping it from opening. The report explains that this embarrassing problem affects all 57 KC-46 tanker aircraft that the US Air Force has. It also affects two Japanese aircraft.
Boeing informed the USAF about the problem and issued a service bulletin with a fix. This involves replacing the screw that holds this trim in place. It then instructs maintenance personnel to replace the screw with hook-and-loop fastening – aka Velcro. The manufacturer says that this is a safe but temporary solution, that allows the doors to operate in an emergency. The KC-46 tanker also has rear passenger doors, that don’t have the same problem.
Still, this is another embarrassing issue in this military program. Boeing says it is trying to work out how the issue went unnoticed for so long. Again, these doors are for passengers and/or medical personnel and are unrelated to its primary mission. The pilots and refuelling operator in the front have access to what would have been the 767’s normal front doors. The KC-46 also has a means for its crew to board using a hatch near the nose gear.
Spyros Georgilidakis has degrees in Business Enterprise and Management. He has 14 years of experience in the hospitality and travel industries, along with a passion for all-things-aviation and travel logistics. He is also an experienced writer and editor for on-line publications, and a licensed professional drone pilot.