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Boeing temporarily grounds KC-46 after manufacturing problems

By Allen Cone
Boeing temporarily grounds KC-46 after manufacturing problems
The first KC-46 tanker for the U.S. Air Force takes off from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., on its maiden flight to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Photo by Marian Lockhart/Boeing

March 1 (UPI) -- Boeing grounded the Air Force's KC-46 tankers, a version of the 767, for one week after the military branch said it found loose tools and other foreign object debris inside the completed airplanes.

Boeing called the problem "a big deal" in a internal memo on Feb. 21 in grounding the planes. The issues come just weeks after the company delivered the first two aircraft to the Air Force.

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"We have USAF pilots here for flight training and they will not fly due to the FOD [foreign object debris] issues and the current confidence they have in our product that has been discovered throughout the aircraft," factory management wrote in the scathing memo to employees on the 767 assembly line and obtained by The Seattle Times.

Training flights resumed Thursday morning as Boeing worked with the Air Force on the production problems for the aircraft primarily used for refueling missions.

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Defense News reported the Air Force will decide this week whether to start accepting KC-46 tankers from Boeing.

Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said in a statement to Defense News is no change to the tanker delivery schedule.

"KC-46 flights were temporarily paused at the Boeing Military Delivery Center this past week, pending agreement with DCMA and Boeing on a plan to resolve a foreign object debris issue," he said. "Safety and quality are the highest priority at Boeing. We are working together with the USAF/DCMA and expect to resume flight operations to support training flights today."

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The military takes such contamination "very seriously," according to Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Hope Cronin.

"The combined Air Force, Defense Contract Management Agency, and Boeing team is working together to resolve these concerns as safely and quickly as possible," Cronin said in a statement to the Seattle Times.

The KC-46 is built as an empty 767 airframe in Everett, Wash., then transferred to a facility at the south end of Paine Field called the Military Delivery Center. That's where the jet's military systems, including the refueling and communications equipment are installed.

RELATED Boeing completes fuel certification testing of KC-46 tankers

During the production process, the jets are supposed to be swept for any debris, especially anything metal. Otherwise, a loose object left inside a wall cavity or under a floor, for example, could damage equipment or cause an electrical short.

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Eight tools were found in aircraft delivered to the MDC and two more in tankers delivered to the U.S. Air Force, according to the memo.

The Air Force and the Defense Contract Management Agency outlined 13 process improvements that it expects Boeing to put in place, said Will Roper, the Air Force's assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, during the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. Fla.

"I don't want to overblow it," Roper said. "If the issue goes away and we have no cause for concern in the future, I'll just treat it as growing pains. ... If we have this issue again, then -- it's already serious -- but it will be a much more serious endeavor."

Boeing noted MDC "has declared a level 3" state of alert

"Does anyone know what a level four is?" the management memo asked. "A level four ... will shut down our factory. This is a big deal."

The memo also said: "It will take us all to win back the confidence of our customer/USAF and show them that we are the number one aircraft builder."

The debris is "a chronic issue" that has "resulted in a program level impact," according to another internal Boeing memo.

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The KC-46 tanker has had multiple schedule and cost overruns since Boeing was awarded the contract eight years ago.

In January, the first KC-46 was finally flown from Boeing's facilities to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

Boeing plans to deliver 36 of the aircraft this year and about a dozen more are nearing completion, said Mike Gibbons, Boeing vice president.

Boeing is paying to solve the issues and $26 million per plane is being withheld until the deficiencies are corrected.

The system, however, is currently safe and useful "as it is," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at the ceremony in January.

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