Boeing’s KC-46 can now use its refueling ramp for operational missions
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has begun conducting KC-46 operational missions using the aircraft’s refueling boom, marking another small step forward in bringing the struggling tanker into service.
The US Transportation Command can now task the Boeing KC-46 refueler to refuel C-17 cargo planes, B-52 bombers and other KC-46s using its refueling ramp. Previously, the KC-46 was only allowed to use its sea anchor for refueling operations requested by TRANSCOM.
The decision was made by General Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of Air Mobility Command, on August 5 and announced by the service on August 6.
“We have been reviewing many of the KC-46’s operational employment criteria over the past few months and it was clear that we were ready for another step,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, who leads the KC-46 cross-functional team.
Although a fully mission-capable aircraft is still “in a few years”, the Air Force hopes to speed up the commissioning of the KC-46 by gradually approving it for operations, Samuelson added.
According to an Air Force statement, the KC-46 has safely refueled the C-17s, B-52s and KC-46s more than 4,700 times since October 2020 during training and exercises. By allowing the KC-46 to take on operational refueling missions for these planes, the service hopes to reduce the workload of the old KC-135 and KC-10 refuellers.
Air Force officials have said the service will not declare the KC-46 operational until all of its critical technical shortcomings are addressed. The program currently has six Category 1 gaps on the books. These issues pose a risk to security or operations.
Two recently discovered issues are “on track to be resolved,” Paul Waugh, Air Force program manager for mobility and trainer aircraft, told reporters on Tuesday. They include a software issue involving the KC-46’s flight management system and cracking of the drain tube, encountered during flights in freezing weather.
However, the bigger problem requires an overhaul of the aircraft’s remote vision system – which provides video images to the boom operator during a refueling – and the new system won’t be ready for production until at least 2023.
Boeing delivered the newest KC-46 on August 6 to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. The company has slowed the pace of KC-46 shipments this spring due to the pandemic, but is expected to increase to two per month, Waugh said.