NewGen Tanker still under wraps

Farnborough Air Show » 2010
July 20, 2010, 6:22 AM

In the U.S. Air Force KC-X competition size matters, but not much else, according to a Boeing briefing here. The company refused to discuss how its NewGen Tanker could be “combat ready” when substantial development work must be done. Citing competitive reasons, Boeing gave no technical details on the new cockpit, the new refueling boom, or even which version of the 767 it was based on.

“How big is big enough?” asked Chuck Johnson, vice president mobility for Boeing’s government operations team, referring to the much larger A330MRTT that EADS North America has proposed to meet the KC-X requirement. “You can always want more, but it’s going to cost you in weight, fuel burn, ramp space and so on. Has everyone understood the physics?” he added. Boeing contends that the 767 tanker is the right-size widebody replacement for the narrowbody KC-135, just as the C-17 airlifter was the obvious replacement for the C-141.

“The A330MRTT is 27 percent larger than the KC-10,” he continued, but carries 100,000 pounds less fuel. Being so much heavier than the 767 means that the A330 will cost more to operate and support, according to Boeing.

The average tanker offload of fuel during combat operations from Vietnam through to present-day Afghanistan has been only 57,000 pounds, Johnson said. The KC-X requirement does call for more, and Boeing’s NextGen Tank will deliver substantially more than the requirement, he added.

$29B in Fuel Savings
Comparing the fuel burn of the commercial Boeing 767-200ER to that of the commercial Airbus A330-200, Johnson produced a calculation that the Boeing KC-X contender could save the U.S. Air Force as much as $29 billion in fuel over a 40-year period (based on a 179-aircraft fleet flying 485 hours per annum each and a doubling of today’s oil price to $150 per barrel).

But enough of statistics. What about the transfer of 787 Dreamliner technology into the NextGen Tanker? “It’s not a direct transfer of the 787 cockpit,” said Johnson. He did note that updating the avionics of legacy aircraft was generally a good idea, and cited Boeing’s own avionics modernization program (AMP) for U.S. Air Force C-130s. But perhaps this was not such a good example, given Boeing’s poor performance on the AMP, which has now led the Pentagon to seek a second-source supplier.

What about the new refueling boom? “It will take the best from the KC-135, KC-10 and KC-767, a fly-by-wire system with an incredible envelope,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to reveal too much,” he added. Apparently, it is based on the KC-10 boom but with increased fuel offload rate.

Talking of flight envelopes, Johnson held firm to the Boeing belief that the Airbus flight control system is too automated to serve in a frontline tanker. “I’ve flown lots of aircraft and had missiles fired at me,” said the former B-52 pilot. “Boeing ensures that pilots have full access to the flight envelope and can override the computer,” he added.

Finally, there was a routine reference to the subsidies to Airbus that were most recently detailed in the WTO report. Why do they matter? “To me, its about the integrity of the process,” Johnson said.

Let us all hope that the KC-X evaluation under way in the Pentagon can demonstrate to all concerned parties that the process, indeed, has total integrity. Otherwise the U.S. Air Force may have to wait even longer for its new tanker.  

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