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Boeing's Loose Tools Ground Air Force Tanker

The FOD quality issue is the latest incident in the KC-46 refueling tanker's brief, but painful history.

So, what’s the only thing worse than being 18 months late in delivering a dozen fewer planes at cost overruns nearing $2 billion? Probably forgetting to pick up your stuff before dropping them off with the Air Force. 

Unfortunately, that’s the situation for Boeing. 

While the aerospace giant was finally able to deliver six KC-46 refueling tankers to the Air Force last month, those planes came complete with a collection of loose tools and other foreign object debris. 

The FOD (foreign object debris) quality error led to the grounding of those aircraft, a halting of future deliveries, and the development of more than a dozen manufacturing process improvements that the Air Force expects Boeing to implement immediately. 

During production, jets are supposed to be swept for any debris that could damage equipment or cause an electrical short. Either this step was missed or under-performed as eight tools were found in two of the delivered aircraft. 

According to a report in the Seattle Times, upon hearing of the FOD declaration Boeing issued a level 3 state of alert at their Everett, Washington factory. This translated to a complete cleaning and debris inspection of the KC-46 work area. A level 4 alert would have shut the factory down. 

This is the latest in the brief, but painful history of the KC-46. It has been plagued by delays since the initial contract was awarded in 2011, as an initial delivery of 18 tankers was supposed to take place in August 2017. Boeing has reportedly eaten more than $2 billion in late fees and cost overruns. 

The primary issues involve the development of the tanker’s remote-vision system and refueling boom. The KC-46 utilizes a 767 frame before all the military systems, including the refueling and communications equipment, is installed. 

The tanker can carry over 106 tons of fuel for Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. jets, as well as those of U.S. Allies. It can also handle up to 65,000 pounds of cargo or take on a medical evacuation role in transporting wounded soldiers. 

Boeing plans on addressing these concerns and delivering 36 additional tankers later this year.

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