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Air Force clears KC-46 tanker for production

[Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]

[Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]

After months of delays and setbacks, the U.S. Air Force's newest tanker jet was cleared for production last week, officials announced.

Once complete, the KC-46 is expected to have a sizable presence in Oklahoma: Altus Air Force Base will serve as a training site for crews, while Tinker Air Force Base will provide maintenance once the plane is

Tinker also is one of four bases Air Force officials are considering as possible homes for an operational KC-46 unit. Officials have designated North Carolina's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base as the preferred site, with Tinker representing a backup alternative.

Designed to replace the Cold War-era KC-135 Stratotanker, the KC-46 has been plagued by design problems, including wiring design issues and problems with the plane's aerial refueling system.

Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer, originally was scheduled to deliver the first 18 planes to the Air Force by August 2017. Air Force officials now say they expect the first batch of planes
to be delivered to Altus and McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas in early 2018.

Maj. Charles Restall, the KC-46 wing integration officer at Altus Air Force Base, said officials at Altus expect to learn later this year exactly when the first tankers will arrive at the southwest Oklahoma base. In the meantime, the base continues to prepare for their arrival.

“We're just going to keep pressing forward,” he said.

On Aug. 30, Altus will reactivate the 56th Air Refueling Squadron to serve as the Air Force's KC-46 training program, Restall said. The squadron, previously known as the 56th Airlift Squadron, flew the C-5 Galaxy until the last C-5 left Altus and the squadron was deactivated.

The base also recently completed work on $40 million in construction and renovation projects in preparation for the tanker's arrival, including office space, training areas, and a flight training center and fuselage training center that will house simulator systems.

The KC-46, which is a militarized version of the Boeing 767, features a multipoint 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.

Tinker prepares

In clearing the KC-46 for production, the Air Force committed to buying the aircraft.

Before Air Force officials cleared the tanker for production, Boeing had to demonstrate the tanker could refuel an F-16 Fighting Falcon, C-17 Globemaster III, an A-10 Thunderbolt II, an AV-8 Harrier II and an F/A-18 Hornet.

The tanker also had to demonstrate that it could receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender.

At Tinker, officials broke ground last month on the KC-46 Sustainment Campus, a 158-acre complex that will handle repair, maintenance and overhaul of the tankers.

During the ceremony, Lt. Gen. Lee Levy II, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center at
Tinker, said he expects the first KC-46 to arrive at Tinker for aircraft maintenance checks sometime in 2019.

Levy said the KC-46 represented a step up from the KC-135, which he noted has been in service since 1956.

“We need a new tanker,” he said. “We're going to get a new tanker, and it's going to be a magnificent flying machine that will help us deliver global reach, global power and global vigilance for America, anywhere.”

Oklahoma-bound KC-46 passes major final flight test (Published July 19, 2016) Could problems with new Oklahoma-bound Air Force tanker be over? (Published July 14, 2016) Pentagon wants 'consideration' for delays in Oklahoma-bound tanker (Published July 12, 2016) Oklahoma-bound tanker could be delayed by a year (Published June 3, 2016) Troubled KC-46 could face more delays (Published May 27, 2016) Possible delays for KC-46 could affect Air Force bases in Oklahoma (Published April 25, 2016) Testing on KC-46 tanker speeding up (Published March 9, 2016) Boeing racing to deliver KC-46 tankers (Published Feb. 25, 2016) Oklahoma-bound Air Force tanker passes another milestone (Published Feb. 15, 2016) Oklahoma-bound tanker completes key flight test (Published Jan. 25, 2016) Update on problem-plagued Air Force plane headed for Oklahoma (Published Jan. 8, 2016) Oklahoma-bound Air Force tanker passes key flight test (Published Nov. 17, 2015) Air Force's new Oklahoma-bound aerial refueler passes crucial flight test (Published Oct. 13, 2015) Oklahoma-bound KC-46 successfully completes first test flight (Published Sept. 28, 2015) Air Force wants KC-46 work exempted from short-term budget deal (Published Sept. 25, 2015) Budget impasse could jeopardize KC-46 contract, Air Force general says (Published Sept. 16, 2015) KC-46 delivery worries escalate for Air Force (Published Sept. 10, 2015) KC-46A: Big airplane being delayed by a few big problems (Published Aug. 30, 2015) Air Force officials hope to avoid personnel cuts amid budget uncertainty (Published Aug. 25, 2015) Tinker Air Force Base aircraft depot construction project is expected to begin in 2016 (Published Aug. 19, 2015)

Related Photos
<p>[Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]</p>

[Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Archives]

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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 ›