Former 15AF commander discusses tanker future
By Joe B. Wiles, 92nd ARW Public Affairs
/ Published July 03, 2006
FAIRCHILD AFB, Wash. -- "No matter what we do, we're going to be flying 80-year-old KC-135s in the U.S. Air Force," said retired Lt. Gen. John B. Sams Jr., at the June 22 Inland Northwest Airlift/Tanker Association chapter luncheon at Club Fairchild. "We'll never be able to procure the next tanker at a rate sufficient that we can avoid an 80-year-old airplane."
When General Sams retired from active duty in 2000, he was the commander of 15th Air Force at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Now he is vice president of Air Force Program Business Development with Boeing.
General Sams was invited to the A/TA luncheon to talk about where the aviation industry
sees tankers going in the future.
"This is a milestone year," said the former vice commander of Air Mobility Command. "This is the 50th anniversary of the KC-135. I was just out on the flight line and saw the sharpest KC-135 I've ever seen, and I've been looking at them for 35 years. Fairchild certainly knows how to do refurb."
This is also the 25th anniversary of the KC-10 in the Air Force inventory. "Can you imagine, we actually went to a system in the KC-10 where the boom operator was sitting in a chair? It was blasphemy," said the general, bringing laughter to the room full of KC-135 aircrew members.
"One of the big lessons we learned on the KC-10 was to put a fuel receptacle on tankers. As a result, we multiplied its capability," said General Sams. "I think you're going to see receptacles on almost any tanker the Air Force buys. So to all the pilots in this room, if you weren't previously a receiver pilot, you soon will be."
Replacing the current Air Force tankers will be a long term endeavor according to General Sams. He said the Air Force plans to buy between 15 and 20 airplanes a year. To replace between 400 and 500 aircraft could take 30 years.
But he doesn't think all of the aircraft will be the same. "What the Air Force has been telling the industry lately is they will have three groups in the KC-135 recapitalization. The first will be between 150 and 180 medium sized airplanes. Then they will decide whether the second group will be medium sized or large tankers," said General Sams.
"The last group will be the opposite size of the second group. At that production rate, you could have three different new tanker platforms plus KC-135s and KC-10s flying before the first KC-135 goes to the bone yard."
The general noted that many people, when considering a new tanker, suggest taking a commercial aircraft and hanging a refueling boom on it. "It's not quite that simple for a couple of reasons," he said.
First, a fuel receptacle will most likely be part of any new tanker. The challenge comes when placing the receptacle above the cockpit. "The most crowded piece of real estate in most commercial airplanes it that area right above and just behind where the pilot sits," said General Sams.
Most of the electrical cables, backup pulleys and assemblies run along the backbone of the jet. "To put a receptacle in there and add a 6-inch air refueling line back to the fuel cells means a lot of stuff has got to be moved. You're talking about a very significant piece of work on the airplane."
Another reason it isn't just a matter of hanging a boom on a civilian aircraft is the boom itself. "No commercial aircraft is stressed to be able to hang a thousand-pound or more boom on the back of the airplane. Then add the weights generated by the air loads on that boom as you maneuver it behind the airplane," said General Sams. "Just for the boom alone the backend has to be completely redesigned."
In fact, added the general, just about everything from the window line around the bottom of the jet changes.
According to General Sams, when Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, commander of Air Mobility Command, talks about the next tanker, he wants floors, doors and defense systems.
Defense systems on the next tanker would allow them to move troops closer to the fight.
Presently, troops are moved primarily by Civil Reserve Air Fleet aircraft. They are not allowed to fly into dangerous areas due to State Department restrictions.
They are flown to a location short of the final destination, loaded into something with protective systems, and then moved to the forward location.
"If you had a tanker that was capable of carrying 200 or more people and had defensive systems, instead of using the limited quantity of C-17s, you could use tankers for those ferry missions," said the general.
According to General Sams, the next generation tanker will capitalize on all the lessons learned out of the KC-10, take advantage of what's going on in the commercial industry and include the specifics the Air Force wants in order to make it as robust as necessary.
The Inland Northwest A/TA chapter will not meet in July due to Skyfest 2006 activities.