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Thu, Nov 24, 2022

USAF KC-46 Sets Endurance Record

New Hampshire to New Hampshire by way of Guam

Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus is an American military aerial refueling and strategic military transport aircraft based on Boeing’s enduringly popular 767 jet airliner. In 2011, the aircraft was selected by the United States Air Force (USAF) to replace its aging Boeing-707-derivative KC-135 Stratotankers. The first of a procurement of 179 KC-46s was delivered to the Air Force in 2019, with the balance of the aircraft to be delivered by 2027.

In November 2022, a KC-46 Pegasus crew flew a 36-hour non-stop mission spanning more than 13,903-nautical-miles. The aircraft departed Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire and traveled west over the continental United States, then on to Hawaii and Guam before reversing course and retracing its path to New Hampshire. The flight stands as the longest Air Mobility Command (AMC) mission to date.

During the day-and-a-half mission, the KC-46 was refueled by two of its sister-ships positioned at Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Two of the three aircrews under whose auspices the record-setting flight was conducted comprised New Hampshire Air National Guardsmen hailing from the 133rd Air Refueling Squadron. The third was an active-duty crew from the USAF’s 64th Air Refueling Squadron. Both squadrons are under the command of the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease Air National Guard Base.

Whilst off the coast of Hawaii, the KC-46 fueled F-22 Raptors in a closed-loop pattern before continuing west to the U.S. territory of Guam, crossing the International Date Line, then reversing course and making for New Hampshire.

The aircraft carried a total of 16 crew, including pilots, boom operators, aircraft maintainers, and a flight surgeon—Major Heidi MacVittie, who used a NASA app to track physiological data about the pilots, such as their reaction time, in hopes of determining whether dispatching multiple, better rested crews results in higher pilot performance than the Air Force’s current crewing practices.

Overall, the record mission was part of a commitment made by the AMC brass to learn more about the aircraft and airmen under their command.

Air Mobility Command HMFIC General Mike Minihan put forth in a statement: “This extended mission is yet another example of capable airmen taking charge and moving out to accelerate our employment of the KC-46A.”

2022 has seen AMC strive resolutely to prove the capabilities of its approximately forty KC-46s. In May, a Pegasus flew a non-stop 24-hour sortie. Four months later, the type was cleared for worldwide combat operations. In concordance with General Minihan’s stated objective of employing AMC’s fleet in hitherto untried ways, a KC-46 recently flew without a co-pilot for purpose of testing flight-operations with a skeleton-crew.

AMC spokesperson Captain Natasha Mosquera stated: “The proof-of-concept mission falls directly in line with his [Minihan’s] intent to move faster in a risk-informed manner to meet Joint Force requirements in a peer competitor fight.”

Notwithstanding it’s long legs and the ease with which it can apparently be flown by a single pilot, the KC-46’s entry into USAF service has not been free of incident. The aircraft’s air-to-air refueling system—arguably the reason for its existence—has been plagued by malfunction and mishap. The cameras and monitors by which the KC-46’s refueling boom is operated are susceptible to washing out under certain conditions—thereby depriving boom operators of the depth-perception required to guide the apparatus during air-to-air refueling. A short-term fix has been devised but put off until 2025 on account of Boeing and the Air Force having collectively contrived a woeful tale of supply-chain troubles and regulatory hurdles.

In addition to its optical system’s shortcomings, the KC-46’s refueling boom is facing a redesign of its plumbing. The fuel pipe within the boom requires a new actuator—one that will permit the boom to fuel all USAF aircraft. Presently, the KC-46 is incapable of refueling A-10s, which Captain Mosquera maintains are “too thrust-limited to overcome the stiff boom issue.”

During an October 2022 air-to-air refueling exercise, a KC-46 incurred damage to its refueling boom and fuselage after experiencing a problem with its fuel-transfer system. The results of the Air Force’s investigation of the incident have not been made public. What’s more, the service has yet to disclose whether subject incident was attributable to the issues pending correction by the imminent redesign. Nevertheless, Captain Mosquera reported in a November 2022 statement that the Boom Telescoping Actuator Redesign (BTAR), will not be retrofitted to the KC-46 fleet until the beginning of fiscal 2026. Mosquera added that Moog, the subcontractor from which Boeing acquires the component, is facing “issues getting a compliant actuator.”

Despite serious issues with one of its principal systems, the USAF asserts the KC-46 is fit for worldwide deployment—following the implementation of what Mosquera called updated “crew training, techniques, and procedures to work around known limitations.”

FMI: www.af.mil

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