Boeing was forced to ground its 767-based KC-46 tankers for the past week after the Air Force expressed concern about loose tools and bits of debris found in various locations inside the completed airplanes, according to internal company memos.
"We have USAF pilots here for flight training and they will not fly due to the FOD (foreign object debris) issues and the current confidence they have in our product that has been discovered throughout the aircraft," factory management wrote in a Feb. 21 memo to employees on the 767 assembly line.
"This is a big deal," the memo emphasized.
The lapse in standards raises questions about Boeing's plan for a major shift in its quality-control procedures.
Training flights resumed Thursday morning after approximately a week's downtime, during which Boeing worked with the Air Force on how to resolve the production problems. Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey acknowledged the problem but characterized it asonly "a temporary pause" in flight operations.
The KC-46 is built as an empty 767 airframe on the main assembly line in Everett, then transferred to a facility at the south end of Paine Field called the Military Delivery Center (MDC), where the jet's military systems, including the refueling and communications equipment, are installed and the airplanes are completed.
The internal company memo said the MDC "grounded our 767 tankers due to FOD and tool control."
During the process of building aircraft, all airframes are supposed to be routinely swept for any kind of foreign object debris — especially anything metal. A loose object left, say, inside a wall cavity or under a floor, is potentially dangerous because over time it could damage equipment or cause an electrical short.
"The 767 program has been scrambling to get our employees down south … to the MDC to clean FOD from our delivered tankers to get our aircraft back in the air," the memo states.
A KC-46 refuels an A-10 Thunderbolt II during testing.(Boeiig photo_
The memo notes that eight tools were found in aircraft delivered to the MDC and two more in tankers delivered to the U.S. Air Force.
Another memo said repeated finding of FOD by the Air Force was "a chronic issue" that has "resulted in a program level impact."
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Hope Cronin said the military is "aware of the concerns over FOD in KC-46 production aircraft" and takes such contamination "very seriously."
"The combined Air Force, Defense Contract Management Agency, and Boeing team is working together to resolve these concerns as safely and quickly as possible," Cronin said via email.
Making sure that no foreign object debris makes its way onto a finished airplane is the responsibility of every mechanic who works on the plane but also of the quality inspectors, whose job is to do a final check on any area of an airplane before it is closed up.
What seems to be a serious lapse in FOD control comes as Boeing says it intends to cut almost 1,000 quality inspectors jobs over the next two years.
Quality inspectors concerned about that move pointed recently to Boeing's failure in December of one element of a quality-control audit on the 747, 767 and 777 airplane programs.
Management said the MDC "has declared a level 3" state of alert on the Everett assembly line over the KC-46 FOD issue. On a scale embedded in Boeing's defense contracts, this level is one step away from a complete shutdown of the assembly line, the memo makes clear.
"Does anyone know what a level four is?" the management memo asks. "A level four … will shut down our factory. This is a big deal."
Employees installing the airplane's systems on the assembly line were directed last week to shut everything down "48 minutes prior to shift end" in order to complete a thorough inspection for debris and to clean the work area.
"It will take us all to win back the confidence of our customer/USAF and show them that we are the number one aircraft builder," the memo urges.
In addition to six flight test KC-46 tankers, Boeing has already delivered six tankers to the McConnell and Altus Air Force Bases, with about 45 more production tankers at Boeing's Puget Sound area facilities in the final stages of completion.
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