A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus touches down at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Oct. 23, 2018.

A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus touches down at Yokota Air Base, Japan, Oct. 23, 2018. U.S. Air Force / Yasuo Osakab

Boeing Has ‘Severe Situation’ After Parts Left in Tankers, Says Top USAF Buyer

Will Roper’s harsh assessment comes amid the unrelated grounding of the company’s popular 737 Max jetliner.

Boeing has “a severe situation” in an assembly-line culture that allowed tools and parts to be left inside tankers delivered to the U.S. Air Force, the service’s acquisition chief said Wednesday.

Will Roper recently met with executives at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington, where the company builds commercial widebody aircraft — and the KC-46 tanker, a version of the 767 jetliner.

“I left concerned,” Roper said Wednesday after speaking at a McAleese & Associates/Credit Suisse conference in Washington. “I also left thinking Boeing understands they’ve got a severe situation that’s going to take top-level engagement from their company. They are committed to doing that.”

The day also saw the U.S. government become the last major country to ground the 737 Max, Boeing’s popular narrowbody commercial jetliner, after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The 737 Max is assembled about 40 miles south of Everett at a factory in Renton, Washington.

Boeing was supposed to get its first KC-46 in 2017, but design and software problems delayed the first delivery until January. After receiving a handful of the tankers, the Air Force began finding tools and parts inside some of the planes, prompting the service to suspend deliveries. The items are known as foreign object debris, or FOD.

“I have big concerns about the FOD issue because that’s simply adherence to process,” Roper said Wednesday. “It has nothing to do with design, it has nothing to do with production. It’s simply following processes that Boeing has on the books and having a culture all the way down to the mechanic level that embraces them.”

The debris issue is the latest setback for the tanker project, which has been beleaguered by development issues. Boeing has had to eat more than $3 billion correcting deficiencies with the planes.

On Monday, the Air Force resumed accepting tankers from Boeing. As of Wednesday, a total of seven have been delivered, Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher said in an email.

“Safety and quality are our highest priority,” Blecher said. “We are committed to deliver FOD-free aircraft to our customer and have an agreed-upon action plan in place going forward. We will continue to work with the Air Force on the schedule for upcoming deliveries.”

The company has also declared this Friday to be “FOD Amnesty Day,” according to an internal company email reviewed by Defense One. The email, which does not mention the KC-46 by name, cites “multiple foreign object debris escapes involving some of our most critical programs.”

“This includes the identification and removal of unnecessary tools, equipment, electronic files, documents and refuse,” said the email from Gena Lovett, vice president for manufacturing, safety and quality, and Ursula English, vice president of total quality. “We all have a responsibility to maintain safe, clean, efficient and FOD-free working areas and it’s so vitally important to who we are we’re making it a [Boeing Defense, Space and Security]-wide priority.”

Boeing teams are sweeping already-built, not-yet-delivered Air Force tankers for debris.

But it will take more than a one-day cleanup to restore Roper’s trust in the company.

“FOD is really about every person, everyone in the workforce, following those procedures and bringing a culture of discipline for safety,” he said. “This is an issue of safety and culture.”

And Roper does not expect a cultural change immediately, even if Boeing starts delivering plans without debris.

“I’m going to believe it [a culture shift] when I see month after month for a long time, that yes, those practices are now things that aren’t just being done because they have to be done, they’re being done because the workforce says this is a product that we deliver to the Air Force, they’re counting on it being high quality and we own the quality of our product,” he said. “That is how we feel [about] our depots and our production lines and I expect to see that reflected in industry partners that are building critical systems for us.”