U.S. Air Force Finally Receives First Replacements for Its 60-Year-Old Stratotankers

The KC-46 is three years behind schedule and cost Boeing billions in overruns.

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U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Bernal Del Agua

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.”

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Fire engines from the 22nd Civil Engineer Squadron fire department water-salute the first KC-46A Pegasus delivered to McConnell January 25, 2019, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas.
A1C Michaela Slanchik, USAF

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.

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