The U.S. Air Force has finally received the first of dozens of new aerial refueling tankers, nearly two decades after issuing a requirement for them. The KC-46A Pegasus tanker, built by Boeing, will replace some of the oldest aircraft in USAF inventories, KC-135 Stratotankers more than sixty years old.
On January 25, two KC-46A tankers took off from Boeing’s airfield at Everett, Washington, and flew to their new home at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. , the aircraft will take part in operational testing with the 344th Aerial Refueling Squadron. Ultimately the Air Force is in a contract estimated to be worth $44 billion.
The KC-46A is actually a Boeing 767 commercial airliner modified to carry large amounts of fuel. The newer tanker carries up to 212,000 gallons of fuel at a time, 12,000 more than the jet it replaces, and can fuel at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute. It can refuel 64 different types of U.S. and foreign military aircraft using a boom lowered from the rear of the jet or pods that drag hoses from the rear, a system called a “drogue.”
The Air Force first issued a requirement for a new tanker in 2001, but there were numerous delays thanks to , congressional opposition (the Air Force originally wanted to lease tankers from Boeing, which Congress didn’t like), and the competition for a winning tanker design being restarted. Boeing’s KC-46A design was chosen in 2011 and the company was supposed to deliver 18 planes, two spare engines, and nine sets of wing-mounted refueling pods by August 2017. that won’t happen until the third quarter 2020, making the program three years behind schedule.
The KC-46A’s delayed development is largely due to technical problems, including a remote camera designed to help the tanker crew mate up with thirsty airplanes in complete darkness, and problems with the tanker’s refueling boom. Boeing has incurred $3 billion in cost overruns getting this far, costs it was forced to absorb.
The KC-46A will replace the KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-135 was based on the Boeing 707 jetliner and first entered service in 1956. KC-135s have served in every U.S. war from the Vietnam War up through the campaign against ISIS.