The tanker, designated the KC-46A by the Air Force, will be a leap forward in technology and capability. It also promises to bolster the company's military sales revenue, which has declined in recent years, and preserve jobs on the 767 line in Everett.
The plane is based on Boeing's venerable 767-200ER, a popular widebody commercial jet. The KC-46A is a tanker, a cargo plane and a personnel carrier, giving it greater flexibility than what's in the current fleet.
"Any mission, any time," said Jim Eisenhart, the director of business development for Boeing's tanker program. He spent 27 years in the Air Force.
The Air Force has ordered 179 of the planes as the first stage in modernizing its tanker fleet, which includes planes built during the Eisenhower administration. Those Eisenhower-era tankers, dubbed KC-135s, were also built by Boeing, based on the 707. The Air Force's other jet tanker, the KC-10, was produced in the late 1970s and the 1980s by McDonnell Douglas, with which Boeing merged in 1997. The KC-10 is also a commercial derivative, based on the DC-10.
Boeing is on schedule to deliver the first 18 tankers by 2017 and churn out 15 a year through 2027. The contract for the first 18 planes is worth about $4.4 billion, with Boeing responsible for any research-and-development overruns. The government estimates all 179 tankers will eventually cost taxpayers $40 billion.
Sometime in the next decade, the Air Force will order another batch of tankers, which could be an updated version of the KC-46A.
"If they like their first 179 KC-46As, they're going to love their second 179," Eisenhart said.
The plane offers far greater range than existing tankers, a key factor as the U.S. pivots toward Asia. It can refuel as many as three aircraft at once. And it can quickly be reconfigured to function as a cargo plane, troop carrier or medical-evacuation plane.
Form follows function in the KC-46A, which promises low operating costs, Eisenhart said. "It's not Gucci, but it is more fuel-efficient."
An Air Force spokesman said the new tanker gives that service "a more reliable plane with less maintenance down time, and at a decreasing per-plane cost to operate. This is a vital step in maintaining the nation's global reach for years to come."
By the end of the year, "we will be in the flight test program," Eisenhart said. "Our learning curve is extremely steep right now."
As testing ramps up, lessons learned from the test planes will be rolled into successive ones.
"You think you know how long a wire is supposed to be, and sometimes the execution is different from what the engineer expected," he said.
The company has used several test labs around metro Puget Sound to troubleshoot potential problems before they crop up, which has helped the program stay on schedule.
The planes will be built in Everett, then flown to Boeing Field in Seattle, where military hardware, including the main refueling boom, will be added.
Many of Boeing's current military products are nearing the end of their lives, such as the Long Beach, Calif.-built C-17, which the Chicago-based company will stop making in 2015.
So the KC-46A is "very important for the company's military side," officially known as Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
The defense side saw a big boost after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Boeing's revenue for a time was split more or less evenly between defense and Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
But defense budget cuts, the end of supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and reliance on older products "means there's only one way for revenue to go, and that's down," Aboulafia said.
The company's done well considering the declining market, he said.
Boeing also makes the P-8, an anti-submarine warfare plane for the U.S. Navy based on the 737, at its Renton facility.
The company could have difficulty selling the KC-46A to foreign customers, several of which have already opted for a multi-role tanker made by Airbus, Aboulafia said.
"It's one of the few examples where the U.S. is lagging, not leading the military export market," Aboulafia said.
The company is marketing the plane abroad and plans to compete for a few foreign contracts this year. It has already sold tankers based on the 767 to Japan and Italy.
The commercial plane has been popular across the world since the first one was delivered in 1982. More than 1,000 have been produced since, but with only a handful of commercial orders remaining, the line would soon shut down, meaning the loss of 1,600 jobs. But now, those workers will continue to build the tanker.
"We're going to be here until at least 2027," Eisenhart said.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org.