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The KC-135 Stratotanker, all-American workhorse

A 141st Air Refueling Wing KC-135 flies over the USS Abraham Lincoln during a RIMPAC exercise June 2-19, 2000. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

A 141st Air Refueling Wing KC-135 flies over the USS Abraham Lincoln during a RIMPAC exercise June 2-19, 2000. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

The 92nd and 141st Air Refueling Wing celebrated Total Force association as the wings combined efforts Oct. 1, 2007. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

The 92nd and 141st Air Refueling Wing celebrated Total Force association as the wings combined efforts Oct. 1, 2007. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

A 141st Air Refueling Wing KC-135 refuels a Navy F-15 Eagle during operations in Iraq December of 1991. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

A 141st Air Refueling Wing KC-135 refuels a Navy F-15 Eagle during operations in Iraq December of 1991. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing Airmen load Hurricane Katrina relief supplies October of 1992. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing Airmen load Hurricane Katrina relief supplies October of 1992. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

A C17 Globemaster III takes part in a night refueling operation with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing over northern Oregon Oct. 19, 2016. Most aircraft that can perform mid-air refueling have strategically placed lights and reflectors to help a boom operator line-up a connection. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

A C17 Globemaster III takes part in a night refueling operation with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing over northern Oregon Oct. 19, 2016. Most aircraft that can perform mid-air refueling have strategically placed lights and reflectors to help a boom operator line-up a connection. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

KC-135A in formation with A-10 Warthogs. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

KC-135A in formation with A-10 Warthogs. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing maintainers work on a KC-135A in the snow December of 1976. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing maintainers work on a KC-135A in the snow December of 1976. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing security forces Airmen deploy onboard a KC-135. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

141st Air Refueling Wing security forces Airmen deploy onboard a KC-135. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

Three KC-135R Stratotankers from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron taxi in preperation for takeoff at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., Oct. 30, 2016. The KC-135 Stratotanker is the mainstay of the U.S. strategic air refueling fleet with over 700 aircraft keeping the mission airborne. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

Three KC-135R Stratotankers from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron taxi in preperation for takeoff at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., Oct. 30, 2016. The KC-135 Stratotanker is the mainstay of the U.S. strategic air refueling fleet with over 700 aircraft keeping the mission airborne. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

A KC-135R Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron takes off in view of the air control tower at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., Oct. 30, 2016. The KC-135 Stratotanker is the mainstay of the U.S. strategic air refueling fleet with over 700 aircraft keeping the mission airborne. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)
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A KC-135R Stratotanker from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron takes off in view of the air control tower at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., Oct. 30, 2016. The KC-135 Stratotanker is the mainstay of the U.S. strategic air refueling fleet with over 700 aircraft keeping the mission airborne. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey)

A B-52 Stratofortress is refueled by a KC-135A. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
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A B-52 Stratofortress is refueled by a KC-135A. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

92nd Air Refueling Wing personnel stand proudly for the annual wing photo in front of building 2050, May 2016. Historically, wing photos have been taken in front of the adorned Tanker Pride, because the building is arguably the anchor and icon of Fairchild. In addition, wing change of commands are conducted on the other side of building 2050 where it reads Global Reach For America. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Taylor Shelton)
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92nd Air Refueling Wing personnel stand proudly for the annual wing photo in front of building 2050, May 2016. Historically, wing photos have been taken in front of the adorned Tanker Pride, because the building is arguably the anchor and icon of Fairchild. In addition, wing change of commands are conducted on the other side of building 2050 where it reads Global Reach For America. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Taylor Shelton)

Senior Airman Megan Myers, 141st Maintenance Group crew chief, supervises KC-135 Stratotanker pre-flight checks during Exercise Global Thunder 2018 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, Nov. 4, 2017. Global Thunder is an annual U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) exercise designed to provide training opportunities to test and validate command, control and operational procedures. The training is based on a notional scenario developed to drive execution of USSTRATCOM and component forces’ ability to support the geographic combatant commands, deter adversaries and, if necessary, employ forces as directed by the President of the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ryan Lackey)
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Senior Airman Megan Myers, 141st Maintenance Group crew chief, supervises KC-135 Stratotanker pre-flight checks during Exercise Global Thunder 2018 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, Nov. 4, 2017. Global Thunder is an annual U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) exercise designed to provide training opportunities to test and validate command, control and operational procedures. The training is based on a notional scenario developed to drive execution of USSTRATCOM and component forces’ ability to support the geographic combatant commands, deter adversaries and, if necessary, employ forces as directed by the President of the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ryan Lackey)

The first KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base in 1958 was named “The Queen of the Inland Empire.” This year the Air Force celebrates the 60th birthday of the KC-135. (Courtesy Photo)
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The first KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base in 1958 was named “The Queen of the Inland Empire.” This year the Air Force celebrates the 60th birthday of the KC-135. (Courtesy Photo)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Air Mobility Command’s mission is to provide rapid global mobility … now, and the capability to accomplish that mission is attained and sustained by the persistent efforts of the KC-135 Stratotankers and the Airmen that support it.

The KC-135 and its supporting Airmen have for 62 years been the backbone of global reach and continues to be the flagship force-multiplier of AMC to this day. It’s projected to remain as a reliable air refueling platform for years to come to support U.S. military and allied partners while deployed and around the world.

“For decades, the U.S. has relied on the global, strategic and theater mobility that (AMC) provides. (AMC) gives our nation one of its greatest strategic abilities, the ability to quickly project power anywhere across the planet,” said Hon. Matthew P Donovan, Undersecretary of the Air Force at a 2017 Airlift/Tanker Association Symposium.

Boeing rolled out the first Model 367-80 aircraft, nicknamed the “Dash-80”, on May 14, 1954, and was the prototype for the commercial 707 Series passenger jet and the KC-135 Stratotanker. The development of the aircraft was a big gamble for Boeing, which invested more than half its profits in developing the airframe before any orders were made for it.

The gamble paid off quickly, as the U.S. Strategic Air Command needed a new air-refueling platform to replace the propeller-driven KC-97 Stratofreighter, whose turboprop engines couldn’t keep up with faster jet-propelled fighters and bombers. The U.S. Air Force ordered 29 KC-135As by the end of 1954 and would follow up with additional orders for a total of 820 KC-135 variants that completed delivery by 1965.

Fairchild Air Force Base received its first KC-135, dubbed “The Queen of the Inland Empire”, on Feb. 21, 1958, as part of the 92nd Bombardment Wing.

The Soviet Union had developed long-range nuclear bombers that could reach the U.S. in 1949, plunging both countries into a Cold War that would last nearly half a century and made Fairchild’s location and mission vitally important to national defense and global reach air power.

Vietnam was the first conflict that tested the limits of the KC-135’s capabilities, with Fairchild’s Airmen and aircraft supporting Operations “Arc Light” and “Young Tiger”, an on-going bomber support mission, from 1968 until the end of the conflict in 1973.

Vietnam became the “first tanker war” with Fairchild Airmen contributing to combat refueling missions lasting 110 months, crews flying more than 194,600 sorties and offloading 1.4 billion gallons of fuel to 813,800 receivers over the duration of the war.

Not long before the Vietnam War ended, the 142nd Fighter Interceptor Wing, whose primary mission was intercepting potential attacking aircraft in the Pacific Northwest region, was re-designated as the 141st Air Refueling Wing in November 1972.

During that change, the pilots had to retrain to fly the larger aircraft from their new station at Fairchild.

“The 141st pilots struggled to go from the aircraft equivalent of a race car to a bus,” said Tech. Sgt. Wesley Walton, 141st ARW historian. “However, they quickly became enamored of the KC-135’s global mission that would take them around the world on missions they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do in a fighter.”

Both of Fairchild's refueling wings would see action in 1990 as Iraq aggression started a war in the Persian Gulf, with many Airmen and aircraft deploying to help with operations “Desert Shield”, “Desert Storm”, “Desert Calm” and “Provide Comfort.”

Fairchild Airmen and KC-135s saw action from August 1990 to March 1991, dedicating more than 4,000 hours, 500 sorties and 200 combat sorties, and off-loaded a total of 22.5 million pounds of fuel to such receiver aircraft as the Navy A-6 Intruder, the A-10 Warthog, B-52 Stratofortress, C-5 Galaxy, F-4 Phantom, F-111 Ardvark, F-117A Nighthawk, and the Royal Air Force Tornado GR4.

“It’s plain to see how the KC-135 changed warfare,” said Calistra Alba, 92nd ARW historian. “All the U.S military services make use of air-refueling and the KC-135s ability to refuel just about any jet, to include many allied nations and NATO aircraft.”

The 92nd Bombardment Wing removed its B-52s and was reclassified as the 92nd Air Refueling Wing on July 1, 1994, making it the largest air refueling station in the Northwest; capable of maintaining an air bridge across the nation and reaching anywhere on the globe in support of the U.S. and its allies.

Combining efforts of U.S. military forces grew in 2007 when the 141st ARW combined missions with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. This Total Force Integration helped grow the base with more than 60 KC-135s shared between the wings, greatly extending the operational capability of Fairchild’s air refueling mission.

“We are looking for every opportunity in our partnerships where we can find common interests, and have our militaries continue to support one another,” Gen. Dave Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff.

The airframe would see many upgrades to improve its service performance over the decades. The current version, the KC-135R, has more than double the engine thrust of the original KC-135A, 25 percent greater fuel efficiency with increased range and fuel dispensing ability; modernized electronics, radar and control systems; and a myriad of small improvements pioneered by innovative Airmen that have optimized its performance and saved millions of dollars with its continued use.

“This was a highly reliable aircraft from the beginning,” said Master Sgt. Benjamin Whitfield, 92nd ARW historical property custodian. “Our innovative Airmen are constantly come up with ideas to upgrade it, helping to make it a tried and true platform for any military effort, and will continue to be relevant for years to come.”

Wherever aircraft are needed for a mission, the KC-135 Stratotanker and dedicated Airmen are sure to be there providing support to ensure mission success, and shows no sign of relieving that role any time soon.