KC-135 Stratotanker reaches historic milestone

  • Published
  • By Capt Joe Simms
  • 927th Air Refueling Wing
When the first Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker took to the sky on August 31,1956, no one at the time could have expected it would still be flying 60 years later.

But for the past six decades, this modified Boeing 707 has established itself as one of the workhorses of the Air Force’s inventory, providing air-to-air refueling, personnel and cargo transport, and aeromedical evacuation capabilities throughout the world.

In the mid-fifties Strategic Air Command, under the direction of General Curtis Lemay, needed an air refueler that could keep up with the fighter and bomber aircraft of the day. At the time, B-52 crews often had to lower their landing gear to create enough drag to match the speed of the propeller driven KC-97 in flight, causing stress on the gear and burning many pounds of valuable fuel.

The introduction of the KC-135 eliminated this problem with its ability to reach speeds exceeding 450 mph while carrying more than double the off-loadable fuel of the KC-97.

Soon after the KC-135A arrived at the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron, Castle AFB, California., in 1957, the Air Force began to phase out the KC-97s, paving the way for a new area in rapid global mobility. In 1976, the Air Force Reserve received their first KC-135 and Citizen Airmen of the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, continue to fly them today.

“It’s a privilege to be associated with such a historic aircraft and knowing what we do has a direct effect on the friendly forces on the ground and ensuring our aircrews make it home safely” said Lt. Col Adam McLean, 63rd ARS commander. “The KC-135 has served as the backbone of the Air Force’s air refueling capability for six decades and there are no signs of it slowing down.”

In fact, it is often said throughout the tanker community that the last mother of the last pilot of the KC-135 has not been born yet, which is a testament to the experience and professionalism of the maintenance personnel that work on the aircraft.

“No one drives a car every day for 60 years but we put the KC-135 through its paces daily and yet it continues to deliver because of the work of the maintenance community,” said Major Mary Lent, 927th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. “Our maintainers are constantly reminded how important their job is because of the aircrews that entrust their lives to the work of our Airmen to keep this jet airworthy.”

The Stratotanker’s capabilities go beyond those of just aerial refueling. As an airlift platform, the KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo and almost 40 passengers. It can also perform in an aeromedical evacuation role, capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets and a medial crew of flight nurses and medical technicians.

Even with the recent introduction of the next generation air refueling aircraft, the KC-46 Pegasus, Air Mobility Command has continued to invest in upgrades and life-extension projects for the KC-135. Reconfirming its status as a vital part of the nation’s air refueling capability according to Stephen Ove, Historian, 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill AFB, Florida.

“Wherever U.S. airpower has been since the late 1950’s, you can expect to find a KC-135 involved in ensuring that mission’s success,” Ove said. “From Operation Linebacker II, to El Dorado Canyon, to Inherent Resolve, nowhere will you find a vehicle with the breath of impact across so many of our nation’s conflicts than you will find with the KC-135 Stratotanker.”

MacDill AFB is home to 16 KC-135 Stratotankers, operated and maintained by both the 927th Air Refueling Wing and the 6 AMW.