Just one of the many controversial defense acquisition programs in recent years, the United States Air Force’s KC-X tanker replacement program made headway last week out of Boeing’s Everett, Washington production facility. Barely squeaking in before the end of 2014, Boeing launched the maiden flight of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker program at 9:29AM on December 28, and thus successfully kicked off the airborne testing phase.

This particular aircraft, in not-so-exciting-terms called Engineering, Manufacturing and Development (EMD) #1, is a modified 767-2C freighter that is undergoing a conversion process to the KC-46 standard. So, technically speaking, it’s not the first new-build KC-46. Two EMD aircraft are slated to participate in the test program, with a pair of KC-46s joining the flight test program in the coming months.

Based on their wildly successful 767 widebody (twin-aisle) airliner, the Boeing Company has been contracted to deliver 179 of the tankers to the USAF as a replacement for the oldest of the aging KC-135 Stratotankers. And old they are, with the first jet having rolled out of the factory in 1956! The KC-135 currently serves as the backbone of the USAF Air Mobility Command’s tanker fleet, and will undoubtedly continue to serve up fresh JP-8 for thirsty customers for years to come, according to the Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James. James says that “even when the program is complete in 2028, we will have replaced less than half of the current tanker fleet and will still be flying over 200 half-century-old KC-135s.”

KC-135 Stratotankers from MacDill's 6th AMW line up during an "elephant walk" (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Shandresha Mitchell)
KC-135 Stratotankers from MacDill’s 6th AMW line up during an “elephant walk” (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Shandresha Mitchell)

Altus and McConnell AFBs are due to receive their first KC-46 aircraft in FY2016, with the former being the schoolhouse (as with the KC-135) and the latter being home to the first active-duty operational aircraft. Both bases are already intimately familiar with the KC-135 and tanker mission, and are both located in areas of CONUS that are heavily tasked with air refueling operations.

Initial Operational Capability (IOC) at McConnell with 18 assigned KC-46 frames is currently set for August 2017, with the Air National Guard (ANG) receiving their first aircraft shortly thereafter. New Hampshire’s 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease ANGB has been designated as the first ANG-led operational base of the KC-46, with the first aircraft due to arrive in FY2018.

Making tankers out of 767s isn’t a new thing for Boeing, as a handful of 767 tanker versions are already in service and operated by the the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), as well as the Italian and Colombian Air Forces. Brazil has also recently joined the 767 tanker party, as they’ve ordered a pair of 767 tankers to be converted from the 767’s larger -300 variant.


JASDF KC-767J takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in support of Red Flag-Alaska
A JASDF Boeing KC-767J takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in support of Red Flag-Alaska