September 16, 2013
The U.S. Air Force and Boeing are embarking on an ambitious strategy to test and certify the new KC-46 aerial refueler in order to meet an aggressive fielding schedule.
The Air Force wrapped up the tanker's critical design review (CDR) early, and Boeing is now turning to manufacturing the first aircraft.
The company prevailed in a protracted duel with European Rival EADS, which offered an Airbus A330-based design, winning the contract in February 2011. Estimated to cost the Air Force $4.9 billion, it covers development of the refueler and delivery of the first 18 KC-46s by 2017. Boeing's willingness to finance some of the development cost underscores how challenging the schedule is.
The CDR, a 10-month exercise that was the first major milestone on the fixed-price, incentive-fee contract, wrapped up Aug. 21, one month ahead of plan. There were no major design changes required, according to Maj. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force program executive officer for tankers.
Out of six “critical action items” flagged during the review, he says four were paperwork issues. The remaining two involved refinement of a system that will be used by the aircraft to communicate with the Air Force's Tanker Airlift Control Center and questions about how the KC-46 will meet a requirement to operate at maximum power for 10 min. without having to undergo maintenance after landing. Both were quickly addressed and neither required major design changes, Thompson says.
The program has a 90% chance of delivering all 18 KC-46s by 2017, as required, according to an annual risk assessment performed by the Air Force, notes Thompson. At closure of the CDR, the development effort is about 40% complete.
But the biggest challenge is executing what Thompson calls the “Test Once” strategy agreed upon by Boeing, the Air Force and FAA. The goal is to maximize data collection and use by each of these communities so as not to waste time repeating test points or limiting flights to suit a single customer at a time.