The Air Force’s top military officer says he’s convinced that Boeing finally has a solid plan to fix the flawed refueling system that has bedeviled its $44 billion aerial refueling tanker program.
“There were some engineering design flaws” in the original Remote Vision System for the KC-46 tanker that have “taken us far too long to resolve,” Gen. David Goldfein said in an interview. “But now I’m as confident as I ever have been that we have good, solid science and engineering behind the fix.”
Boeing agreed this month to complete a major overhaul at its cost to replace the 3D cameras that feed a console where an airman guides a refueling boom during the midair minuet to connect with another plane. The 33 tankers that have already been delivered with the flawed system will need to be retrofitted.
“There are camera systems flying out there today that work, so I have high confidence that the design has got high, high probability of working,” Goldfein said. “It’s the design we’ve been asking for, quite frankly, for some time.”
Flight tests with the redesigned system are projected in 2022, with the improvements retrofitted on tankers already delivered in about July 2023, Jamie Burgess, Boeing’s vice president and program managers for tankers, told reporters this month.
Goldfein retires this year so his successor — Gen. Charles Brown, if he’s confirmed by the Senate — will get to accept praise or absorb criticism on the outcome.
Goldfein said his confidence came from a review by the Pentagon’s top acquisition and research officials, Ellen Lord and Michael Griffin, as well as weapons tester Robert Behler. These are “folks who are steeped in the technical details and they all, independently, came back and said, ‘This is good science,'” Goldfein said.
The Air Force discovered in 2017 that shadows or the glare of the sun sometimes can hamper the cameras’ view, resulting in occasional scraping of planes being refueled or difficulty in performing the operation.
Boeing said in May 2018 that it had a software solution, but in January of this year Goldfein wrote the company’s incoming chief executive officer, Dave Calhoun, that “to date, progress has been unsatisfactory.”
Goldfein’s letter and a subsequent meeting with Calhoun apparently had impact. “Following this meeting, the Air Force and Boeing team set out to overhaul the KC-46” with a new design calling for hardware as well as software changes, according to an Air Force “public affairs guidance” document.
In addition to Boeing’s agreement to pay for the tanker fix, Goldfein said the company put some of “their most talented engineers” on the case.
Larry Chambers, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said the company has increased the number of engineers dedicated to the KC-46 and set up a technical advisory council that “joins experts from across the company with outside technical experts, including those noted for their research on the human perception of 3D video displays.”