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Possible delays for KC-46 could affect Air Force bases in Oklahoma

This image depicts the new KC-46A Pegasus refueling aircraft. Repair and maintenance of the KC-46A will be performed at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo provided by U.S. Air Force] |

This image depicts the new KC-46A Pegasus refueling aircraft. Repair and maintenance of the KC-46A will be performed at Tinker Air Force Base. [Photo provided by U.S. Air Force] |

Once it's complete, a new fleet of KC-46 tanker planes is expected to give the U.S. Air Force a more effective option for refueling its other planes midflight.

But production of the new planes has been fraught with setbacks, making the question of when the tanker will be ready to fly less clear by the day. That's left officials at two Air Force bases in Oklahoma with little to do but watch and wait.

"We've done quite a bit of work, and we're sitting in a good position," said Maj. Charles Restall, the KC-46 wing integration officer at Altus Air Force Base. "We've been working everything we can to prepare."

Nicknamed the Pegasus, the KC-46 is expected to have a major Oklahoma presence. Altus Air Force Base will serve as a training site for crews, while Tinker Air Force Base will provide maintenance once the plane is operational. Tinker is also one of four bases being considered as a possible site for the planes to be based.

The KC-46 is designed to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. The 60-year-old tankers kept American B-52 bombers in the air throughout the Cold War.

The new tanker, which is a militarized version of the Boeing 767, features a multi-point refueling system that will allow it to refuel two smaller planes at once. The plane's cargo deck also includes space for three times as much cargo and twice as many passengers as the KC-135.

Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer, is scheduled to deliver the first 18 planes to the U.S. Air Force by August 2017. But the project has been plagued by setbacks, including wiring design issues and problems with the plane's aerial refueling system. Those issues led to production delays, forcing Boeing to speed up its production schedule to make up for lost time.

In a report released earlier this month, the federal Government Accountability Office noted that Boeing faces a challenging schedule if it hopes to meet its deadline. The agency suggests the delivery date could be delayed by as much as four months.

It isn't clear what such a delay would mean for Tinker or Altus, but officials at both bases say they're moving forward with preparations.

Altus Air Force Base has spent $40 million on construction and renovations to prepare for the plane's arrival. Those projects include office space, training areas and a flight training center and fuselage training center that will house simulator systems.

Base officials want to be ready whenever the planes finally arrive, Restall said. The base will also need to hire more civilian employees for maintenance work, Restall said.

Tinker officials wouldn't comment on how the potential delays would affect plans for maintenance operations or the possibility of an operational unit. But Maj. John Quinlan, a spokesman for the 507th Air Refueling Wing, said base officials still expect to have maintenance hangars complete by 2017, and planes are expected to begin arriving for maintenance in 2019. If Tinker were chosen as a site for an operational KC-46 unit, its tankers wouldn't arrive until 2020 or 2021, Quinlan said.

Regardless of whether the delays materialize, the Air Force is conducting environmental impact studies at Tinker and the other three bases being considered for operational units. Base leaders expect to hold public meetings to discuss those plans later this year.

"Right now, we're planning ahead," Quinlan said.

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›