The Air Force last week approved the KC-46 for limited refueling missions under requests from the U.S. Transportation Command, the branch announced. File Photo by Marian Lockhart/Boeing
Aug. 9 (UPI) -- After years of issues, the U.S. Air Force has begun using the KC-46A aircraft's refueling boom on operational missions.
Air Mobility Command Gen. Jacqueline Ovost approved the Interim Capability Release mission set for the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling tanker on Friday, the branch said in a press release.
This marks another milestone for the troubled tanker that has yet to see combat, and the Air Force intends to wait to declare the aircraft operational until a series of safety and operations issues are resolved, Defense News reported.
The first ICR decision for the air refueling boom mission set allows the U.S. Transportation Command to task it with refueling the C-17 Globemaster III, B-52H Stratofortress and KC-46 receivers, according to the Air Force press release.
It also allows the Pegasus aircraft and crews to reduce pressure on KC-135 and KC-10 tankers for air refueling, which has been a goal since the modified Boeing 767 was introduced in 2019.
"We have reviewed many of the KC-46 operational employment criteria over the past several months and it was clear we were ready for another milestone," Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, who leads the KC-46 cross-functional team, said in the release.
"Though a fully mission-capable aircraft is a few years away, releasing capability our KC-46 bases have demonstrated they can safely and effectively support and employ is a large part of how AMC is accelerating the KC-46 on the path to becoming fully operational and combat-ready," Samuelson said.
The U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command previously cleared the plane for Centerline Drogue System for air refueling TRANSCOM has requested, and for limited, non-combat flights.
Design problems and quality control issues have led to delays in progression of the aircraft for years, including malfunctioning cargo locks and its boom telescope actuator, and three U.S. senators called for investigation into the problems last year.
At the time, longstanding problems included the refueling boom and its rearward-facing remote vision system.
Earlier this year, a report the Pentagon's inspector general released found the Air Force could have avoided spending $100 million for redesign of the fueling boom with more careful oversight.
Despite restrictions and deficiencies, the KC-46 has safely conducted over 4,700 refueling contacts with C-17, B-52 and KC-46 receivers since October 2020 on various training and exercise missions, the Air Force said.
The Air Force recently discovered two problems, Defense News reported.
First, drain tubes to remove water from the aircraft can become cracked in cold temperatures. Second, a software bug, which according to Boeing, has sparked "navigational anomalies."
Paul Waugh, the Air Force's program executive for mobility and training aircraft, told reporters last week that the two recent problems are "well on track to being resolved."
But the biggest problem was the Remote Vision System for video imagery to the boom operator upon refueling required redesign, which won't be set for production until at least 2023.
The newest KC-46 was delivered to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma on Friday, and even though the pace of KC-46 deliveries has been slowed due to the pandemic, it is expected to ramp up to two a month, Waugh added.
In June, a U.S. Air Force probe into its recent contract award to Boeing for Japan's KC-46 tankers spare parts raised concerns about unfair pricing.
The same month, the U.S. Air Force sought up to 160 new refueling tankers to replace Boeing's KC-46, according to a contract notice, as lawmakers pushed for the Air Force to terminate its KC-46 contract with Boeing.