By Dan Catchpole
Everett Herald Writer
EVERETT — Boeing is moving through flight testing for its KC-46A Pegasus, a new aerial-refueling tanker ordered by the U.S. Air Force.
Military pilots have joined Boeing pilots behind the controls of the program’s two test planes.
The first, called EMD-1, is a non-military version known as a 767-2C. The other, EMD-2, is a fully militarized version of the tanker. It flew for the first time on Sept. 25, more than nine months behind Boeing’s aggressive development schedule.
Last week, EMD-2 deployed in-flight refueling equipment: a boom attached near the rear of the fuselage and three hoses, one from each wingtip and the fuselage.
The boom is essentially a rigid, telescoping straw that an operator extends from the tanker. The operator then helps guide the boom to an aircraft waiting to refuel. The hoses are just that — hoses with drogues at the end. They are reeled out from the tanker. Other airborne aircraft then connect to take on fuel.
Deploying “the boom and drogues signals real progress toward demonstrating the ability to pass fuel in flight,” said Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, head of the Air Force’s tanker program. “This sets the stage for the main act, which is hooking up to and refueling an aircraft in flight.”
The tanker won’t actually try refueling a plane in flight until late this year or early in 2016, Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said.
In the three weeks since its first flight, EMD-2 has conducted six test flights.
“We’re hoping to get EMD-2 going like we are with EMD-1, where we’re knocking off those test points,” he said.
EMD-1 first flew Dec. 28 and resumed flight tests in late May. Since then, the plane has racked up more than 200 flight hours.
EMD-2 will soon be headed to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California for further testing.
Boeing is still building the last two test planes: a 767-2C and a KC-46. They are expected to fly by early next year.
The aerospace giant plans eventually to convert the two non-military versions into KC-46 tankers and deliver them to the Air Force, which wants 179 tankers by 2027. That contract, worth an estimated $48.9 billion, is the first of a three-stage overhaul of an aging tanker fleet.
Boeing has to deliver the first 18 combat-ready tankers to the Air Force by August 2017. The new tankers will replace Boeing-built KC-135 Stratotankers, the first of which entered service in 1957.
This summer, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg tapped Scott Fancher, a vice president and head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ development programs, to make sure the airplane maker delivers its first batch of tankers on schedule.
At the time, the program was several months behind schedule and had racked up about $1.26 billion in cost overruns that Boeing had to cover.
Due to the delays, the Air Force has pushed back to next April its decision on whether to begin production.
Boeing has already started assembling production-run tankers to meet the delivery deadline in 2017. Even so, aerospace analysts following the program say Boeing will be hard-pressed to deliver the first 18 tankers on time.
The Chicago-based company is trying to find buyers overseas, too. So far, it has lost out to Airbus, which has a tanker based on the A330.
Boeing might finally win a foreign contract with Japan. This summer, Airbus withdrew its bid, leaving Boeing the likely winner. Japan is expected to award a contract for four tankers later this month.