"This is a big deal," a February 21 memo from Boeing's factory management in Everett, Washington, said. The memo went out to employees on its 767 assembly line, which makes a plane that serves as the basis for its KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker, used by the US Air Force.
"We have USAF pilots here for flight training, and they will not fly due to the FOD (foreign object debris) issues and the current confidence they have in our product that has been discovered throughout the aircraft," the memo notes. As the plane is assembled, it is routinely swept for objects or tools left around or within it, as they could cause damage later from bouncing around, particularly if they're inside of a sealed-up bulkhead or underneath a floor, explains the Seattle Times, which first reported the story.
Subsequent sweeps found eight tools in aircraft that had been advanced to a later stage of production and two tools in planes actually delivered to the Air Force.
While the tanker fleet was eventually returned to the air on Thursday, approximately one week after it was grounded, the Times noted that the Air Force considers FOD a "chronic issue" that has "resulted in a program level impact."
As a result, the Air Force said Friday it would refuse delivery of further KC-46s until Boeing cleans up its manufacturing act, the Times also reported.
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Hope Cronin said no KC-46s had been accepted since February 20, "and [deliveries] will not restart until the production aircraft are cleared of FOD, and the Air Force and DCMA [Defense Contract Management Agency] have approved a corrective action plan by Boeing that will prevent FOD in the future."
It's a big setback for the planemaker and the KC-46 program, which is already years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, and has several serious performance issues the service has been forced to overlook due to its dire need to replace its aging tanker fleet.
The Air Force took delivery of the first nine KC-46s on January 11 — a year and a half later than it was supposed to, according to its contract with Boeing.
Boeing announced in May 2016 that it was going to miss the August 2017 deadline and that the program was $393 million over budget — a deficit the company was forced to swallow itself, according to its fixed-price contract with the Pentagon, Defense News reported at the time.
The setbacks come from the Chicago-based firm's attempts to wrestle with two glaring defects in the KC-46's design: it can't adequately refuel the Air Force's A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft due to a problem with the refueling boom, and the cockpit camera that shows the pilots a view of planes behind the craft coming in for more juice has a bad glare issue, Forbes noted.
Boeing is contracted for 52 of the expected 179 KC-46 tankers the Air Force will require, according to a company press release in January.