Though a senior U.S. Air Force official has cautioned that Boeing’s plan to close its tanker finishing facility in Wichita presents a risk to the $51.7 billion KC-135 replacement effort, the company’s program manager views the shift as an opportunity to reduce cost and gain schedule margin.

“After 16 months [since contract award], I am feeling really good,” says Maureen Dougherty, KC-46 vice president for Boeing, during her first interview since the company won the $4.9 billion development contract last year. “Whenever a change is made in the program, you look at it as an opportunity to look at your plan and continue to provide efficiencies over time.”

The company signed up to a demanding fixed-price contract to deliver the first 18 KC-46 tankers in 2017; first flight is slated for 2015. The cost estimate at completion is expected to require Boeing to underwrite up to $400 million worth of the work (because it is expected to exceed the contract target).

Dougherty declined to specify how much Boeing funding would be needed to complete development, but she says the shift from Wichita did not change the company’s estimate at completion as submitted more than a year before its win over EADS, which offered an Airbus A330-based design.

Boeing cited the downturn in defense business opportunities in its January announcement that it would close the Wichita plant, the legacy tanker center for decades, by the end of 2013. Work such as the military modifications needed to turn a 767-2C freighter into a KC-46 tanker and assembly of its refueling boom were to be done in Wichita but now are being shifted to cites in the Puget Sound area of Washington state.

Three systems integration laboratories (SILs) designed to reduce risk on the yet-to-be-built 767-2C design and the KC-46 will be located at Boeing Field in the southern part of Seattle. Flight testing, a wet-fuel systems lab (including a replica of the entire KC-46 fuel architecture) and the finishing center (two work stations where military-specific tanker modifications will be installed) also will be there.

“We are managing … a low-risk program [as if it were] a medium-risk program in order to accelerate risk reduction,” Dougherty says. The 78-month development contract allows five months of schedule margin, she says.

Another way Boeing plans to keep the program on schedule is to rely on Boeing Commercial Airplanes for as much flight testing activity as possible to support FAA certification and Air Force qualification requirements, Dougherty says. Contractors have long complained that military test centers often introduce risk into a program owing to trouble scheduling flight time on base. Dougherty says the company’s planned approach provides more leeway to Boeing in managing the certification process. “Instead of waiting for a [specific testing] condition to show up, they will go and find that condition” somewhere to execute a specific test point, she says. The KC-46 project includes four test aircraft.

Risk reduction already has begun, though the SILs will not be up and running until the fall at the earliest. Together with Cobham, its wing-mounted refueling pod supplier, Boeing has executed wind-tunnel tests to establish the proper shape for the hose-and-drogue refueling pods, Dougherty says.

Buffeting bedeviled Boeing’s Italian tanker program, but advance work on the KC-46 project has ensured that “things are at a low risk” in moving forward with the pod, she adds.

Dougherty, who has only just begun to publicly discuss the project, says she has been solely focused on executing the early phases of the program. The KC-46 successfully emerged from its preliminary design review in May and program officials are now ensconced in detailed design work. Risk mitigation is, however, a major focus. The key is “just being obsessed with it,” Dougherty says. “That allows you to have the headroom you need early on.”