The first flight of the KC-46 next-generation tanker took place on Friday and, as expected for a mature design like the Boeing 767, it did fine on its four-hour shakedown. Now that Boeing has shown the airplane can fly, it’s getting ready for the so-called “Milestone C” testing that will show whether the plane can do its job of replacing some truly ancient airframes (Boeing 707s and Douglas DC-10s) in the vital role of aerial refueling of tactical and reconnaissance aircraft. “Today’s flight reinforces that we are moving in the right direction and are on track to begin planned Milestone C testing later this year,” said Tim Peters, Boeing’s KC-46 tanker vice president and program manager, in a statement. “This is an aerospace industry first and the culmination of a lot of hard work by the team, including Boeing, our suppliers and the U.S. Air Force.”
Although there are hundreds of 767 takeoffs every day all over the world, the first flight of the KC-46 has been delayed more than a year because of various technical and human-error glitches. The Friday departure from Paine Field keeps the timeline toward a contract from the Pentagon running. The problems have put additional scrutiny on the program from the Air Force at the same time the KC-46 is also threatened by the ongoing budget gridlock in Congress. The persistent pattern of temporary authorizations in all arms of government may actually result in a breach of the terms of the contract the government has with Boeing for the early rollout of the KC-46.