Boeing KC-46A flies through early review

The next-generation aerial tanker, in a program that could eventually be worth $30 billion, will incorporate a digital flight deck that features, among other things, Boeing 787 Dreamliner electronic displays.

C-17 Globemaster III
A C-17 Globemaster III lines up for aerial refueling just behind and below a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Pacific in early May 2012. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen

We've written here a number of times about U.S. Air Force aircraft designed way back in the middle of the 20th century -- the B-52 bomber, the U-2 spy plane, the C-130 all-purpose airlift aircraft -- that are still pulling duty in this second decade of the 21st century.

But of course, the Pentagon does buy its share of new designs to keep pace with changing times and the demands of modern war-fighting. (Consider the saga of the multibajillion-dollar F-35 joint strike fighter.)

One of those newer-fangled aircraft destined to join the inventory in the not-too-distant future is the KC-46A aerial tanker, which will eventually replace the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender. Boeing won the contract for the next-generation tanker in early 2011 after a protracted competition with Europe-based manufacturer EADS.

The deal could eventually be worth $30 billion, though the ante from the Defense Department is a more modest $3.5 billion, for which Boeing has committed to build the first four of a projected 179 of the new tankers. It has to deliver 18 combat-ready KC-46A aircraft by 2017.

This week, Boeing happily proclaimed that its new-tanker program has hit several major milestones on or ahead of schedule and has completed a preliminary design review with the Air Force, demonstrating that the KC-46A -- based on the Boeing 767 commercial airplane design -- meets system requirements and setting the stage to proceed with detailed design. The next big step will be a critical design review that will take place in the summer of 2013. After that, it's on to the manufacturing stage.

"The KC-46 team is designing an aircraft that will offer superior, modern multirole capabilities for the warfighter, including advanced refueling systems and military avionics, and the ability to transport cargo, passengers, and patients," Maureen Dougherty, Boeing KC-46 Tanker vice president and program manager, said in a statement.

What's new in the KC-46A? Among other things, Boeing says, it will incorporate a digital flight deck that features Boeing 787 Dreamliner electronic displays, as well as a modernized KC-10 boom with a fly-by-wire control system.

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