KC-46 Touches Down In Wichita After Years Of Preparation, Waiting

Jan 25, 2019

After several delays, McConnell Air Force Base received not one but two new KC-46 tankers on Friday.

McConnell, located on the southeastern edge of Wichita, had expected the tanker to arrive last spring, but the delivery date was repeatedly pushed back. The plane is expected to rejuvenate the base's role as a key part of the Air Force's air refueling framework.

"I don't know if you can see it in my face, but I am extremely excited right now," said Staff Sgt. Devaughn Granger, who will be part of the first active duty aerial refueling squadron for the KC-46 at the base.

The KC-46A Pegasus tanker is designed to refuel other jets flying long missions, including bombers flying out of Whiteman Air Force Base east of Kansas City.

Since 2014, McConnell has been preparing for the tanker's arrival. Three new hangars were built along with a new training facility. Training began in simulators and a replica fuselage well before the planes arrived.

In total, the base has spent about $267 million to prepare for the new planes. 

Boeing is building the tankers with Wichita-based Spirit AeroSystems acting as major supplier.

The plane was supposed to arrive last spring before being delayed. The plane passed its final test in July but was delayed again.

The resignation of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed the delivery back further. Finally, in mid-January, the Air Force announced the plane would arrive within weeks.

The original expectation was for one plane to arrive Friday, but Boeing announced at the last minute that a second plane would be coming the same day. Both planes landed within 30 minutes of each other Friday afternoon. Boeing is expected to deliver 36 planes in total over the next few years.

McConnell will still rely on the older KC-135 Stratotanker, a plane that has been in operation for more than 60 years. But the Air Force said that the KC-46 is a major upgrade.

"This is an entirely new weapon system with nine key priorities and capabilities that the 135 does not -- some of which we can't talk about," said Col. Bruce Heseltine, commander of the 931st Air Refueling Wing at McConnell.

The KC-46 is expected to play a vital role in future Air Force operations. For Wichita, that helps guarantee that McConnell will stay in Wichita for years to come. The base estimates it contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the local and state economy.

"We are going to be gainfully employed with this weapon system for a long time," Heseltine said.

Stephan Bisaha, based at KMUW in Wichita, is an education reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.