The Air Force’s new KC-46A Pegasus tanker recently notched its first refueling mission as part of real-world operations, the service said in a release Thursday.
It’s a step toward normalcy for the beleaguered fleet that is working through significant hardware and software defects, four years after the first jet was delivered to the Air Force.
Their first foray into operations came Aug. 29, when the tankers were used to gas up two F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets that were carrying out regular CENTCOM operations. The refuelers were in the region for a multi-week training exercise at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
Four Pegasus tankers altogether participated in the exercise, which ended this month.
“Three of the KC-46As focused on completing aerial refueling missions, and a fourth aircraft [was] on alert in the event of a grounded aircraft,” the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, said in the release.
Air Mobility Command also pushed airmen to fly around-the-clock missions to see how the tankers would fare in an “extreme desert climate,” the release said.
Airmen gleaned useful information about how long it takes to prepare a KC-46 for missions, its maintenance needs and how it’s built.
The command uses training to vet ideas for how the jets could be used in future operations worldwide, which is less risky than trying out new concepts in regular combat missions.
For now, Air Mobility Command is trying to make the most of KC-46 program delays by using that time to preemptively certify the Pegasus to refuel as many types of military planes as possible. That way, it will be ready to go when it gets the all-clear to fly everyday tanker missions.
Boeing is replacing the tanker’s network of cameras and sensors, known as the remote vision system, with an updated version that shows a clearer picture of the fuel boom.
RVS woes are the most pressing among a slate of problems that also includes buggy navigation software, water-draining tubes that freeze and crack, malfunctioning cargo restraints and faulty emergency exit door trim.
The Air Force doesn’t expect to declare the KC-46 fleet at least partially operational until 2024 at the earliest. It plans to own 179 Pegasus jets by the end of the decade.
“Seeing it in action was very impressive,” 379th Air Expeditionary Wing commander Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Nelson said of the KC-46. “The onboard systems provide great situational awareness of the surrounding area to the crew, and watching the boom operator accomplish air refueling using the remote vision system was equally impressive.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.