DLA Aviation parts support ensures tankers available for aerial refueling mission

By Cathy Hopkins DLA Aviation Public Affairs

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The Air Force’s aerial refueling capability recently expanded with the delivery of the KC-46A Pegasus aircraft to McConnell Air Force Base, Wichita, Kansas, in January.

Bill Knepshield has been working to ensure Defense Logistics Agency has parts support in place for the Pegasus since early 2014, when he became the KC-46 weapon system program manager, Customer Operations Directorate, DLA Aviation. Knepshield, who is also the WSPM for the KC-135 Stratotanker, said DLA support for the KC-46 officially started with the aircraft’s delivery to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, in February. 

Preparing to support the new weapon system involved several challenges beginning with the fact that Federal Aviation Administration parts certification was required.  The Pegasus is a Boeing 767 commercial aircraft modified for refueling – a first for the Air Force.

According to the Air Force KC-46 Program Office, the analysis of alternatives confirmed that a commercial derivative aircraft (CDA) was the most effective solution, as the first increment of tanker recapitalization.

“The partnership between the USAF, DLA, and FAA has been nothing short of stellar,” said Air Force Col. John Newberry, KC-46 program director. “It started with team-based training, focusing on the vision and mission of the process to field an FAA-certified CDA from start to finish.”

One benefit in using a commercial derivative aircraft is an expanded parts supply chain via commercial supply chains.  

“Ultimately it means the parts will be more readily supportable because the industry has thousands of commercial aircraft using those same parts,” said Knepshield.

He said it was a challenge because, until this aircraft came along, DLA didn’t have a FAA parts certification requirement in Department of Defense and the Air Force didn’t have cognitive engineering authority and technical specifications for the parts from Boeing.  The joint DLA/Air Force team had to learn to understand FAA requirements and correlate them into the DOD. In December 2017, DLA created roughly 1,800 new FAA-certified KC-46 national stock numbers that were awarded in three phases under the Boeing Captains of Industry contracts in 2018-2019.

DLA also had 1,500 military-specific parts that required special FAA permission to use on the KC-46.  Overall DLA manages about 3,300 NSNs on the KC-46; the Air Force manages about 60.

Since August 2018, DLA has received more than 4,000 requisitions for common items supporting initial retail spares parts allowances. According to Knepshield, for most weapon systems DLA supports, the agency manages roughly 85% of the parts and the military services manage about 15%.  In additional to parts support, in 2018 DLA Energy procured more than 81 million barrels of fuel for the warfighter valued at more than $8.5 billion. Broken down, that’s 4.5 billion for the Air Force.

The KC-46 will enhance the service’s ability to perform its refueling missions, but the new aircraft is only one part of the refueling fleet, which also consists of the KC-135 and the KC-10.  The KC-135s are now roughly 60 years old and have been extended to 43,000 flight hours this year. The KC-10s are close to 40 years old and the KC-46s’ life expediency is through 2060-2070.

“The KC-135 is an expensive plane to maintain after being in its operational and sustainment phase for more than 50 years now,” said Knepshield. “KC-135s go through phased depot maintenance and engine overhaul every five years. 

One of the major challenges with supporting the KC-135 is procuring parts that haven’t been bought since the aircraft was manufactured.  “We have to find sources, and ultimately Boeing is the one we go to because they still have proprietary rights to parts that we never thought to replace,” he said. 

One of DLA’s recent KC-135 challenges is with landing gear supports.

“We have some on hand and are expediting contracts to meet demand now. DLA will invest roughly $120 million to ensure parts are ready when they are needed,” he said.  “The part has a long lead time and we are estimating that total replacement for the fleet will be needed over a five-year period.

While DLA and the Air Force work to sustain the fleet’s existing tankers, Knepshield said one of the new features of the KC-46 is its remote vision system.  He said the RVS provides capability for air-to-air refueling into the 21st century.

The RVS allows the operator to use both 2D and 3D technology from the front of the aircraft to conduct refueling operations.  With the new system, the tanker can refuel aircraft at any time, in any weather and under any lighting conditions.

The Air Refueling Operator Station (AROS) includes panoramic displays giving the ARO wing-tip to wing-tip situational awareness. (watch AROS video to learn more KC-46 refueling capabilities)

The tanker can also be configured to carry 18 pallets of cargo or 54 medevac’ed passengers.

With the addition of the Pegasus, overall fleet maintenance costs will also be reduced as maintenance needs will be minimal in the KC-46’s early operational phase.  Knepshield believes sales for KC-46 support may reach $20 million this year and increase exponentially as the fleet size grows when support shifts from intermediate contractor support to full organic support beginning in 2021.  Full organic support means DOD will support all parts requirements for the weapon system. Currently, DLA purchases between $200-$275 million in parts annually for the KC-135 and roughly $150 million for the four F-108 engines it uses. 

DLA Aviation Procurement Operations in Philadelphia is working with the Air Force now on two acquisitions to have in place when ICS support ends.  According to Adam Hubley, KC-46 contracting officer, DLA Aviation in Philadelphia, one is a military-unique, performance-based logistics contract and the second is a commercial, common PBL contract, to be awarded in 2020 and 2021, respectively.  Both contracts will support more than 14,000 consumable and 2,600 depot-level repairable items and require a high level of material availability and supply response time, while providing several program support functions.

“This performance-based support strategy will be the most cost effective [method] to support the KC-46 customer’s critical requirements,” said Hubley. “The PBL approach will incentivize life-cycle cost reduction while achieving quick delivery turnaround times and increased product reliability.”

While the KC-46 is the first commercially modified FAA-certified aircraft to enter the Air Force’s fleet, Knepshield sees DOD using more derivative aircraft for future weapons systems.

“When you can modify an existing aircraft to meet your needs, your development time and costs go down,” he said.