McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita has been preparing for its next generation of air refueling tankers for more than four years.
Military and Boeing leaders have not yet announced a new delivery date for the KC-46 Pegasus tankers. Plans for a December arrival fell through.
In the meantime, Air Force crews continue to train for missions aboard the larger and more complex Boeing-built air refueling planes.
McConnell built a 13,000-sq.-ft. facility on base for KC-46 training. Inside the building are classrooms, a conference room and a big warehouse that houses a full-scale replica of the cargo deck for a KC-46 tanker.
This main body section, known as a fuselage, is about 14 feet off the ground. During training exercises, a large cargo door is open, as a truck brings a cargo load into the facility. The load crew elevates a ramp to the side of the simulated plane.
Flight Safety Services instructor Mike Adams is inside the plane, explaining how to receive and load three pallets full of equipment.
“So, it’s the first one on, don’t let the increment numbers confuse you. They can either load in order or they can load by pallet position,” he says.
The KC-46 air refueling tanker is a military version of the 767 commercial plane. It can carry a mix of cargo, passengers and medical patients in addition to its fuel load. It is larger with more capabilities than the KC-135 currently used in Air Force missions.
McConnell spokesman Daniel de La Fe says the training replica gives pilots and cargo operators a chance to practice before they are sent aboard the new aircraft.
“So the fuselage gives us opportunities to test the safety requirements, fueling systems, air medical evacuation and really important, cargo loading,” de La Fe says.
Moving cargo pallets from the truck ramp into the plane is easy because the deck floor has a built-in roller system. The crew can rotate the pallets based on the size and shape of the supplies to make sure the load fits through the plane and into its designated position.
“We’ll look at the top. See how everyone tends to look at their feet? You want someone looking up,” Adams tells 349th Air Refueling Squadron Superintendent Bartek Bachleda during a training overview recently.
A three-person crew will fly the KC-46: a pilot, co-pilot and a boom operator. Boom operators will take on a bigger role in cargo transportation because the KC-46 can carry up to 18 pallets. The older KC-135 that aircrews are used to holds just six pallets.
Adams explains the different ways to configure a cargo load, and how to maneuver with the new tanker’s cargo handling system.
“Generally, the upload takes a little bit longer and the download tends to go a little bit faster because a lot of the training has been done on the upload," he says. "Mainly it’s moving parts out on the download."
Bachleda has 14 years of experience as a boom operator with KC-135 air refueling missions. Now, he’s learning the new tanker’s cargo loading requirements and formats.
“There is a lot of fuel underneath the floor, and there are certain compartments you can't put an excess amount of weight ... you kind of have to play a jigsaw puzzle in your head when you get the actual cargo,” Bachleda says.
The cargo deck replica matches the KC-46 layout so crew members can test out and find the best configuration to store cargo. Floor rails throughout fuselage are used to guide pallets to their places. Metal clamps secure the load so there is no movement during a flight.
McConnell’s de La Fe says the replica was built with robust materials to withstand the wear and tear that comes with training exercises.
“This is made to handle cargo loading; made to handle mistakes so that we can keep our aircraft operational and also teach our aircrew,” de La Fe says.
Flight Safety Services is conducting the initial KC-46 cargo training. Eventually, Bachleda and other Air Force members will take on that responsibility. Bachleda came to Wichita four years ago to serve as a boom instructor for the KC-46 program.
“My job will be to learn as much as I possibly can because I'm going to turn around and teach the next generation how to be mission booms on this aircraft,” Bachleda says.
The permanent training facility at McConnell cost about $6.4 million. De La Fe says McConnell is setting the standards and processes for KC-46 training because the facility will serve as a model for two other Air Force bases that are also receiving the new tankers.
McConnell is expected to receive 18 tankers in the first round of deliveries, and will eventually be home to a fleet of 36. Bases in Oklahoma and New Hampshire will also receive the KC-46 tankers in the future.
The last piece of the training puzzle is to just get the new tanker here so aircrews can put their new technical skills into action.
The KC-46 tankers were supposed to arrive at McConnell last spring. When that didn’t happen, Boeing announced in June that McConnell would receive the tankers beginning in October. Following another delay, Boeing pushed the delivery date to the fourth quarter of 2018. A change at the Pentagon leadership reportedly stalled the final steps in the delivery plans.
The process is further complicated now because acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is a former Boeing executive and is not allowed to be involved in Boeing matters at the Pentagon.
“McConnell is standing ready to take the aircraft whenever senior leaders from the Department of Defense, the Air Force and Air Mobility Command decides it is ready for the joint warfighter,” de La Fe says.
The U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing the tanker contract in 2011. Boeing will build 179 KC-46 tankers for the Air Force by 2027. The Air Force plans to replace the oldest of its KC-135 Stratotanker fleet.
McConnell built three new hangars and completed other construction projects — including the KC-46 training facility — worth about $267 million to prepare for the new tankers.