Boeing Tanker Scandals Never Go Away

A KC-46 Pegasus refuels an A-10 Thunderbolt II. (Boeing photo/John D. Parker)

It has now been more than fifteen years since the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) first exposed the “cozy dealings” between Boeing and an Air Force procurement officer named Darleen Druyun. The dealings were connected to the replacement of the nation’s fleet of mid-air refueling tankers. The aircraft, now known as the KC-46 Pegasus, refuels bombers and fighter jets on long-range missions.

The scandal that followed saw Druyun go to prison along with then-Boeing CFO Michael Sears, and the resignation of then-CEO Phil Condit.

In the intervening years, the original plan for the Air Force to lease the tankers from Boeing was scrapped. Boeing then lost the contract to an Airbus/Northrop consortium, only to pry it back through the exercise of raw political influence by the Obama administration.

A summary of the scandal that I put together in 2010 can be found here. A more recent account by Mark Thompson of the Project on Government Oversight is here.

Today, Boeing is finally delivering the tankers but the project is mired in problems. After years of delays and cost overruns (surprised?), the Air Force in January stopped accepting delivery of the tankers because they were full of trash and loose tools.

Supposedly, all this junk rattling around posed no operational or design threat, but it certainly makes one wonder. If Boeing can’t even clean up and inspect for delivery brand new aircraft costing hundreds of millions each, just how carefully did it test and inspect the onboard systems that really do matter?

Years ago, we criticized the “culture of corruption” at Boeing. Will Roper, the assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition referenced Boeing’s culture last week when he said, “Culture doesn’t happen because you had a meeting. It happens because you did the little things right time and time after time.”

Roper continued, “Which is why for us to re-bestow trust on that line, we’re going to be measuring as we go, and we expect to see many months of pristine airplanes before we’ll say the culture is back. So for the next year or so, we’re going to be monitoring month by month saying: ‘Is it getting better?’ ”

The Air Force has announced that it will now accept deliveries of tidied up planes. Procurement officers are famous for talking tough, and then pulling punches when it comes to actually actually dealing with contractors. After all, they all someday want a “private sector” job.

The tanker’s troubles outlasted the man who uncovered the “cozy dealings” in 2003. Ken Boehm, who was then NLPC chairman, passed away last year. It remains to be seen if there has been a Boeing culture change. The questions generated by the 737 MAX tragedies don’t help the company’s image. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.