Top General Scolds Boeing on Air Tanker Stall

Boeing KC-46 refueling tanker

The Air Force’s top general has sent a letter to the new CEO of Boeing Co. complaining that Boeing is two years behind in delivering on a $44 billion contract for air tankers to refuel its bombers, that the 30 tankers the Air Force has taken delivery on are incapable of doing the job of refueling, and that Congressmen are likely to grill the general in upcoming budget hearings on “our serious concerns in two areas — trust and safety.”

The letter, leaked through unofficial channels, was reported this week by Bloomberg News.

Spokesmen for both the Air Force and Boeing declined to acknowledge or comment on the letter.

According to Bloomberg, General David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote to Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun four days before Calhoun took office, alerting him to not neglect the company’s problems with the tanker program.

Boeing and Calhoun have plenty of other problems facing them, the most serious being the FAA’s grounding the 737 MAX, a new line of commercial airliners that suffered two crashes that killed 346 people.

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It is nine years now since Boeing wrestled the mammoth tanker contract away from EADS, the military arm of Airbus, which was prepared to make the air tankers in Mobile, Alabama.

EADS won the contract, but the award was challenged by Boeing and, in another round of procurement, the Air Force awarded the contract to Boeing, which is making the tankers in Everett, Washington.

Alabama partisans were greatly disappointed, but they have been since mollified by Airbus’ decision to assemble commercial airliners in Mobile.

In his letter, reports Bloomberg, Goldfein singled out problems with the “Remote Vision System,” critical for docking and connecting a 59-foot fuel line.

“Boeing officials have said they’ve deployed a software solution expected to overcome the main hurdle,” Bloomberg reported, but that is cold comfort in current circumstances, since three separate software fixes have thus far failed to lift the FAA’s grounding of the 737 MAX. And a software problem was at the heart of the crash failures.

In December, Airbus and Lockheed Martin announced an agreement to team up on an Air Force tanker solution that could compete for a share of the current contract if it becomes contested, or for a shot at an extension of the current tanker contract.

The Air Force has taken delivery of 30 tankers from Boeing in order to begin crew and logistics training but last year started withholding full payment, according to an Air Force spokesperson.

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