An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

KC-135 Stratotanker turns 50, continues going

  • Published
  • By Gene Vandeventer
  • Air Force Reserve Command staff historian
Turning 50 isn't something everyone wants to celebrate. But, when it comes to the KC-135 Stratotanker, it's appropriate to remember the aerial achievements and sustained worthiness of the aircraft in its support of national defense. That's why Tinker AFB, Okla., home of the KC-135 depot, will put on special 50th anniversary celebrations Sept. 8-9.

Fifty years ago on Aug. 31, 1956, Boeing's KC135A lifted off on its first flight. This event, spearheaded in many ways by Strategic Air Command's Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, helped expand the air refueling mission into a new era of jet propulsion as the KC-135A refueler began replacing the Air Force's four-engine, propeller refueling fleet of KB-29s, KB-50s and KC-97s. This year's anniversary is indeed a golden achievement for the KC-135.

At a time when bombers were no longer being manufactured with piston-driven engines but instead progressed into the age of turbo-jet propulsion, the Air Force needed a refueling fleet that could carry a bigger payload of fuel and travel at ground speeds exceeding 450 mph. Boeing's 367-80, the basic design for the KC-135A, was the answer.

In the years leading up to 1956, B-52s turbo-jets often times had to lower their landing gear to create drag reducing airspeed in order to match the slower KC-97s in-flight. This maneuver presented potential landing gear retraction problems for the B-52s and expended many unnecessary pounds of fuel at the conclusion of the refueling task when the bombers sought to regain their regular cruising altitudes. The KC-135A made this practice obsolete.

When the KC-135A came on-board, its fuel capacity exceeded 31,000 gallons - more than double the KC-97's 14,900 gallons. Also, the KC-135A was faster - by at least 125 mph.

The first active-duty unit to receive the KC-135 was the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Castle AFB, Calif., in 1957. Eighteen years later, the Air National Guard's 145th ARS, 160th Air Refueling Wing, Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio, received its first KC-135A. In 1976, the Air Force Reserve welcomed its first KC-135 in the 336th ARS, 452nd Air Refueling Wing, March AFB, Calif. Although the Reserve wing and its flying squadrons have undergone changes over the years, the 336th ARS flies KC-135s today as part of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base.

Since its inception, the KC-135 has received updated engine modifications (KC-135E, R and T versions) that have drastically improved its power, fuel efficiency and environmental compatibility. These re-engineered designs made the aircraft 25 percent more fuel efficient, nearly 95 percent quieter than the original KC-135A's and produce a thrust of almost 22,000 pounds per engine.

Brig. Gen. Dean J. Despinoy, commander of Air Force Reserve Command's 434th ARW at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., flew several models of the KC-135 in his 28-year Air Force career.

"I remember the extreme faith we had to have in the aircraft when we started the water injection and a two-minute takeoff roll to rotate 500 feet prior to the departure end overrun and then break ground 500 feet into the overrun only 12 seconds behind the aircraft in front of us," he said. "We would climb out only one half of a degree below stall to get 200 feet per minute rate of climb.

"Today I fly the Pacer Craig block 40 version with the CFM- 56 engines producing twice the thrust per engine as the JP-57," he said. "It's like having eight of the old engines strapped to the wings."

Originally assigned to Strategic Air Command, the KC-135s found new homes in 1992 when the Air Force major commands underwent major organizational restructuring. The newly established U.S. Strategic Command got SAC's intercontinental missiles and some bombers, the Air Combat Command received the larger bombers and some of the aerial tankers, and the Air Mobility Command gained most of the tankers and all of the airlift aircraft. In the succeeding years, the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard acquired more KC-135s as their air refueling responsibilities increased.

Although the Stratotankers were reorganized in 1992 under different major commands, their aerial importance and contributions continued and not just in the refueling arena. As an airlift platform, the KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo and some 40 passengers. In an aeromedical role, it is capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets and a medical crew of flight nurses and medical technicians. The 367-80 frame has been altered to do other jobs as well, ranging from a C-135 transporter to an EC-135 flying command post to the RC-135 reconnaissance to the NKC-135 test flight operations.

In its primary role as an air refueler, the KC-135 has been a critical ingredient to extending the flying ranges of military aircraft from the Cold War to Global Reach and Global Power and now the Expeditionary Air Force. The following are some of the significant operations that the refueler has supported:

- Cold War alerts while in SAC

- Vietnam War air operations to include Arc Light, Commando Hunt and Linebacker

- Urgent Fury in Grenada

- Just Cause in Panama

- El Dorado Canyon in Libya

- Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf

- Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Southwest Asia

- Allied Force (Kosovo) in the Balkans

- Northern Watch and Southern Watch in Southwest Asia

- Noble Eagle air defense of the United States

- Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan

- Iraqi Freedom in Iraq

- Worldwide Global War on Terrorism

Of particular noteworthiness were specific events during these operations that distinguished the KC-135s and their crews.

One such event happened in May 1967 over the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam when Maj. John Casteel and his crew from the 902nd ARS, Clinton-Sherman AFB, Okla., performed a tri-level refueling engagement. The crew was credited with eight aircraft saves that day and in July that year became the first SAC tanker crew to win the coveted Mackay Trophy for meritorious flight achievement.

Another operational first was the El Dorado Canyon mission against Libya in 1986. This mission brought together KC-135s and newer KC-10 air refueling aircraft as they worked in tandem to support F-111 fighter-bombers based in England on the then longest fighter mission, some 4,500 nautical miles from start to finish.

On the first day of the Gulf War, Jan. 17, 1991, Capt. David Horton and his active-duty KC-135 crew from the 70th ARS, Grissom AFB, were credited with a F-117 fighter save. Responding to a "may-day" call by the Stealth pilot, whose aircraft was dangerously low on fuel, the KC-135 crew despite foul weather performed a refueling "toboggan" maneuver that dispensed the needed fuel just in time to save the fighter. As they broke-off, the F-117 pilot saluted the tanker crew and said, "You guys really saved my bacon today."

Additionally, as evidence of the total force in action, active-duty, Reserve and Guard refueling units produced outstanding results during the Desert Storm air war. Combined, the refueling fleet logged 60,000 flying hours while conducting 15,434 tanker sorties. It was estimated that more than 110 million gallons of fuel were pumped through tanker booms to awaiting aircraft. On any given day during the 43 days of Desert Storm, 18 percent of the planes in the air over the area of operations were tankers.

Since the Global War on Terrorism began in September 2001, Air Force tankers have dispensed more than 550 million gallons of aviation fuel to aircraft defending the homeland or engaging terrorists around the world.

As to the continued worth of the KC-135, perhaps no one can articulate it better than a proud boomer like Master Sergeant John R. Williams, who has more than 23 years of experience on the aircraft.

"My unique job has me lying in a prone position at approximately 22,000 feet, gazing through a relatively narrow 18- by 26-inch window trying to align my boom extension with a thirsty aircraft while both of us are bobbing and weaving and going at nearly 275 knots an hour," said the boom operator.

Sergeant Williams approaches each refueling mission with the same sense of urgency, importance and safety as if it is his first day at the controls.

"It has to be this way for having a complacent mindset could only cause an error and believe me, at 22,000 feet there is no room for error," he explained.

Sergeant Williams said the secret to the KC-135's longevity is its design.

"For the past 50 years, with little modification, it is still doing the job it was meant to do," he said. You just couldn't ask for more than that."

Like the KC-135, Sergeant Williams is hoping to be around a few more years. This summer his 64th ARS at Portland International Airport, Ore., transferred all of its KC-135s to Reserve units at March ARB and Tinker AFB. Although the move meant Sergeant Williams was out of a job, it didn't mean he had lost his desire to continue flying the KC-135. If he is as resolute as the aircraft has been resilient, he will be back in the belly of a KC-135 doing what he loves best. (AFRC News Service)