The KC-135 Stratotanker, all-American workhorse

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ryan Lackey
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
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.