USAF Pauses KC-46 Acceptance After FOD Found on Aircraft

A KC-46 Pegasus taxis at Altus AFB, Okla., Feb. 8, 2019. Air Force photo by TSgt. Kenneth Norman.

The Air Force temporarily stopped accepting new KC-46 aircraft this week after foreign object debris was found in several tankers, though service officials are expected to make a decision soon about whether to resume flights, the service’s acquisition chief said Thursday.

Will Roper, USAF’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said the service found, “stuff on the airplane that shouldn’t be there,” such as “trash, tools, and things of that nature,” after it started accepting the first new tankers last month. “That’s a failure of process, and focus on safety.”

According to a memo obtained by The Seattle Times, eight tools were found in tankers at Boeing’s Military Delivery Center in Washington, and two tools were found in tankers already delivered to the Air Force. Boeing has delivered six jets to the Air Force since late January: four to McConnell AFB, Kan., and two to Altus AFB, Okla. Roper said there are two more jets in the queue to be accepted. Those jets will be delivered to Altus, said Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey.

Roper told reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium he had a phone call scheduled later Thursday with the Defense Contract Management Agency and his team, both of which have inspected the aircraft, “to discuss what they found before we decide if we can accept these again. If we’re not confident with these two airplanes, and the thoroughness with which they’ve been inspected, then we’ll keep them on the ground, but the early feedback I’ve gotten is that there’s been a very thorough scrub, … so I expect we will not have any hindrance.”

The Defense Contract Management Agency and the Air Force have come up with 13 “remedies” it wants Boeing to implement “over the long haul” to ensure that foreign object debris is kept off the production line, he added. Ramey said Boeing was still working with DCMA to finalize a plan to resolve the issue; however, he emphasized that “safety and quality are the highest priority at Boeing. We are working together with the USAF/DCMA and expect to resume flight operations to support training flights today. There is no change to the current tanker delivery plan.”

Roper said he considers the FOD issue to be separate from deficiencies that are being worked out with the new tanker’s refueling boom system. In some incidents, the boom operator’s view can be impaired when refueling aircraft, making it difficult to tell if the boom was scraping a receiving aircraft—a potentially big problem for stealth aircraft that have a special coating on the outside.

The KC-46 refueled its first stealth aircraft—an F-35 from the 461st Flight Test Squadron—on Jan. 22. Roper said there were no issues with tanking during that test.

The Air Force and Boeing also are working to fix a deficiency with the boom itself, though USAF has said the boom design meets contractual requirements, so USAF will pick up the cost of that fix.

“I view, at this point, that these are two separate issues,” Roper said. “Issues with things like RVS and boom design, those are requirements issues. The FOD is a production issue, and it really boils down to rigorous adherence to standards and processes on the production line. It’s fixed with proper management from leadership.”