Boeing on Friday allowed media its first look inside the factory that is turning 767s into KC-46 air refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.
The factory, also known as the Everett Modification Center (EMC), was once used to complete early models of the 787 Dreamliner. The large building now holds four tankers in various stages of completion, including the first which will be delivered to the Air Force. The company expects to deliver the first 18 jets by early 2018.
Boeing is also more than 60 percent through its flight test program using six jets. It has delivered more than 200,000 pounds of fuel to Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft as part of those tests.
While photographers were allowed to take some pictures of the planes both in the factory and on the Boeing Field flight line, reporters were able to see and report on much more.
Included was a tour of the factory using four stations to build the telescoping flying boom, that extends out to 60 feet from the back of the plane. In the early days of tankers Boeing built in the 1950s and 1960s, many of which are still in service, the operator lays on his stomach and guides the boom to the receiving airplane by looking through a window. Aboard the KC-46 tanker the operator sits before a wrap around bank of screens connected to cameras, many of which are infrared.
Wearing special 3D glasses, the operator has a three-dimensional view of what's going on outside as uses a joystick to fly the boom to a thirsty airplane. Once connected, computers take over, and the operator can let go.
The boom can deliver more than 1,300 gallons of fuel per minute. To put that into perspective, it could fill the tank of a large pickup truck in a second. The plane carries 212,000 pounds of fuel in its wing, center fuel tank and four special tanks mounted in what is normally the cargo hold under the main deck.
The KC-46 also has three basket-like drogues, which are fed out from below each wing tip and from the fuselage and used primarily the U.S. Navy and allied nations. As required, the plane also carries up to 18 pallets of cargo, up to 100 troops and 58 liters to transport wounded soldiers.
But Boeing says its tanker will get much closer to combat. Not only is the cockpit armored against small arms fire, but the airplane is designed with countermeasures against missile and electronic attack. Graphical displays in the cockpit are tied into the secure network showing the crew other planes, missile threats and the battle space around it.
It can also refuel without being seen, with special lighting to guide the pilots of planes being refueled and the boom operator using infrared technologies.
And there's more. When on the ground, a scrambling crew can push a green button mounted on the back of the nose gear that starts the plane's APU or auxiliary power unit. A ladder comes down, and the crew can climb directly up into the plane and the flight deck. Boeing says that airplane can be in the air in 10 minutes after that button is pushed.
But getting here has been a struggle. Boeing won the contract in February of 2011, after successfully protesting the original tanker award that went to its main competitor, Airbus. It's considered a fixed price contract and Boeing has taken six charges against earnings over delays and design changes made to things like wiring and plumbing placement.
The company now says the jet's design is stable and still expect it to make a profit over the planned delivery of 179 jets. The company is also hoping for follow-on contracts from the Air Force as well as international sales to allied countries.