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Pilot Sticks Landing at Joint Base With Stuck Tanker Boom (With Congressional Staffers Onboard)

The beleaguered Boeing KC-46 Pegasus program suffered a minor mishap this week during a flight on which nine staffers from senate and congressional offices were on board, but the incident ultimately drew praise for the ease in which the aircrew handled the situation.

The KC-46, a multirole tanker and transport based on the airframe of the Boeing 767 airliner, belonged to the 157th Air Refueling Wing, based at Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H. The plane, on Wednesday, was performing what is known as an “orientation flight,” which introduces certain civilians and other personnel to the aircraft’s systems so they can become familiarized with its capability, when its refueling boom became stuck in the deployed position. Nine congressional staffers were on board the flight, part of a group of 16 employees who were on two separate planes.

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The KC-46 offers two manners of refueling other military aircraft: the boom method and the probe-and-drogue method. U.S. Air Force aircraft exclusively use the boom method, in which a telescoping tube connects to a port on the fuselage of the receiving plane. It can also extend a hose with a scoop, known as a drogue, to connect to a probe that extends from the aircraft. This method is used in many naval aircraft as well as allied aircraft such as the Dassault Rafale and Mirage 2000. The boom refueling method transfers fuel at a much faster rate. In the case of Wednesday’s mishap, it somehow became stuck in the extended position .

After the problem was encountered, the USAF pilots declared an emergency and ultimately diverted to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, where the locally-based 305th Air Mobility Wing took responsibility for securing the scene and responding to any emergencies. There were no injuries, and the extended boom did not cause a fire when it made contact with the runway.

The second plane involved in the orientation flight, another KC-46, landed at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire. A third KC-46 that happened to flying a similar route shuttled the nine congressional staffers back to New Hampshire from the Joint Base.

The particular airframe involved in the incident recently garnered publicity for displaying a special “Live Free or Die” livery in honor of the Air Force’s 75th birthday.

While a flight with congressional staffers on board may have been an inopportune moment for a problem to arise, the way the incident was handled was well-received.

“I received a lot of positive feedback from the staffers,” said Capt. Jeremiah Neault, a congressional liaison for the NHNG. “Some were texting me from New Jersey. They were all amazed at the professionalism of the crew, how cool-headed and calm they were.”

A Kuster staffer told Neault, “Once you’ve seen a refueling, you’ve seen them all. Watching your crew respond to multiple contingencies and do it in such a methodical and smooth manner was better than the actual refueling.”

The KC-46 won a federal contract to fill a requirement under the KC-X tanker competition to replace the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. The twin-engine plane competed with its European counterpart, the Airbus A330 MRTT. The Airbus initially won the competition, however Boeing ultimately won the contract following a protest. The program has been plagued by several glitches, including a fuel leak issue in 2020 and lingering problems in the usage of the Remote Vision System, which helps airmen direct the boom to its receptable on the receiving aircraft from a remote location, instead of manning controls at the rear of the tanker.

The KC-46 is expected to have overcome the remaining issues by 2023, when it will be ready to refuel all U.S. military aircraft in combat scenarios.

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