KC-46 Software Enhancement Stalls As USAF Plans New Camera System

KC-46 Pegasus prepares to refuel
A KC-46 prepares for a refueling.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

An interim update that Boeing designed to improve the KC-46 Pegasus’ remote-vision system has been stalled due to an ongoing software problem in the initial two aircraft to receive the installation.

The snag has put the program behind the U.S. Air Force’s timeline.

The issue with the Enhanced Remote Vision System (ERVS) comes as the Air Force prepares to begin the critical design review (CDR) for the full redesign of the overall RVS, which will include new boom cameras, improved sensors and an overhauled boom-operator station. The preliminary design review (PDR) was finished last month, with the Air Force agreeing to cover the costs of replacing problematic cameras and Boeing footing the bill for the wiring and hardware upgrades.

When the OEM and Air Force announced the plan to fix the RVS in 2020, Boeing also revealed the new software-only upgrade, originally called Remote Vision System 1.5 and now Enhanced RVS. It is designed to sharpen the image an operator sees from the aircraft’s boom camera system. The Air Force at the time agreed to the plan if it did not affect the timeline for the full-scale modification.

Installation of the ERVS began in December 2021 at Altus AFB, Oklahoma, where KC-46 aircrews are first trained on the Pegasus. The plan was to install the software upgrades at a pace of four aircraft per month.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said at the time that a Boeing field team and an Air Force maintenance unit can complete a retrofit in a single shift.

But the initial installation quickly showed flaws. The Air Force said in a statement that during early operations with the new software update “it was presenting an erroneous fault under certain specific conditions.” Installations are on hold while a fix is being finalized as are retrofits.

Both of the first two aircraft to receive the ERVS have been showing erroneous alerts under these undisclosed conditions. The root cause is known and a corrective action is underway. Retrofits on the other aircraft are on hold until the fault is fixed.

“We have completed analysis and identified a solution and are working closely with the Air Force to finalize and implement that solution,” a Boeing spokesperson said in a statement.

An Air Force spokesperson said the expectation was installation of the ERVS would be further along by now—the original pace of four aircraft per month would mean about 24 aircraft by mid-June.

“Some of that initial integration with software has had some delays and they’re working through that so we can use it in the way in which we hope to,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, the Air Force’s KC-46 cross-functional team lead. He is also deputy director of strategic plans, requirements and programs for Air Mobility Command.

In mid-May the Air Force closed the PDR of the overall RVS fix after an extended process was slowed by an issue with another set of cameras on the system. A PDR typically takes about two to three months but was almost 11 in this case. Because of the extended PDR process, the Air Force expects the CDR to move faster; it is scheduled to begin June 28.

In addition to cameras focusing on the refueling boom itself, the KC-46 has a set of three panoramic cameras that are used to detect incoming receiver aircraft at a distance and allow a boom operator to prepare for the refueling process. But the cameras did not produce clear enough images for an operator to see incoming receivers from a sufficient distance.

As part of the PDR, the Air Force and Boeing reached an agreement on how to address this issue, with the government paying for new cameras and Boeing for preparations to connect them.

“We weren’t happy with the cameras, so what was decided was since we’re going to redesign RVS, what we would like to do is get in there and make sure that the cameras are all included in that since it’s all one package for the boom operator,” Samuelson said.

Under the agreement, Boeing will pay about $125 million for new fiber-optic cables, conduits, software integration and other “nonrecurring engineering” costs. Meanwhile, the Air Force is beginning to determine which cameras should be installed. Once selected, they will become government-furnished equipment and the government will pay for installation.

The Air Force is conducting research on what cameras could be used, including systems Boeing had already considered for the boom-operator camera system. The service is also even consulting with the U.S. Space Force to take advantage of its expertise with high-definition optical sensors. The KC-46 System Program Office is “making sure that the government gets something that it wants, not just a vendor recommendation to put in there,” Samuelson explained.

Once the new panoramic cameras are selected, the Air Force needs to determine the best way to install them with the least impact on a fleet that will need a large overhaul.

The Air Force expects the new RVS to be installed beginning in 2024, with initial operational capability to follow. These issues are in addition to a problem with the boom itself, which is preventing it from refueling lighter and smaller aircraft such as the A-10. That fix, called the Boom Telescoping Actuator Redesign, (BTAR) is also coming at the government’s expense, with the design expected to be completed in 2024.

“And so we have not determined right now exactly whether or not that is going to be done at a field level, whether or not it’s going to be done in the speed line and everything else,” Samuelson said. “Part of the reason for that is ... we have RVS 2.0, we have BTAR and we have [panoramic] cameras all within about 2-3 years, all clumped in there depending on how the schedules flow out that are all going to take down operational capacity as we go through those.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.