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First AFRC tanker goes digital at Tinker

Lt. Col. Eric Wilks and Lt. Col. Marvin Ashbaker, pilots with the 465th Air Refueling Squadron, conduct pre-flight checks aboard the Air Force Reserve Command’s first KC-135 to be upgraded with Block 45 May 5, 2016, at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Block 45 provides a digital display of engine controls, an updated autopilot, a new altimeter and software upgrades, ensuring that the KC-135 can perform well into the future as the workhorse of the air refueling fleet. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

Lt. Col. Eric Wilks and Lt. Col. Marvin Ashbaker, pilots with the 465th Air Refueling Squadron, conduct pre-flight checks aboard the Air Force Reserve Command’s first KC-135 to be upgraded with Block 45 May 5, 2016, at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Block 45 provides a digital display of engine controls, an updated autopilot, a new altimeter and software upgrades, ensuring that the KC-135 can perform well into the future as the workhorse of the air refueling fleet. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

Lt. Col. Eric Wilks and Lt. Col. Marvin Ashbaker, pilots with the 465th Air Refueling Squadron, conduct pre-flight checks aboard the Air Force Reserve Command’s first KC-135 to be upgraded with Block 45 May 5, 2016, at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. The $910 million dollar modification program has upgraded 29 aircraft to date. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

Lt. Col. Eric Wilks and Lt. Col. Marvin Ashbaker, pilots with the 465th Air Refueling Squadron, conduct pre-flight checks aboard the Air Force Reserve Command’s first KC-135 to be upgraded with Block 45 May 5, 2016, at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. The $910 million dollar modification program has upgraded 29 aircraft to date. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The 507th Air Refueling Wing here is the first Air Force Reserve Command unit to receive the new KC-135 Block 45 upgrade, an improvement to the flight deck that provides flight crews with an updated autopilot and digital panels that eliminate analog instrument gauges by consolidating the outdated controls onto one large LCD screen.

The 465th Air Refueling Squadron took the newly upgraded jet on its first flight April 21.

Four of the eight jets  in the wing's fleet are scheduled for the upgrade by September 30, according to the Block 45 Program Manager at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center here, Capt. Anthony Konakowitz.

“The average upgrade takes 50 to 55 days to complete, but some aircraft have been upgraded in as few as 43 days,” said Konakowitz.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Swinehart, a guidance and control technician with the 507th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here, said eliminating the older technology saves maintenance hours by cutting down on troubleshooting time and provides a highly reliable system by reducing the amount of avionics components that could potentially fail.

“Rather than us trying to troubleshoot and figure out what’s wrong with the system, the system is now better able to tell us exactly what’s wrong with it and what we need to replace,” said Swinehart. “Instead of analog gauges trying to talk with digital signals, it's all digital now, so we don’t have to convert from one to the other.”

Maj. Michael Waters, a pilot with the 465th Air Refueling Squadron here, said the new autopilot is comparable to that of a commercial aircraft and should alleviate stress during flight and increase performance.

“Our flight deck workload should decrease with a more conventional automation,” said Waters. “It will just take some time to adjust to the new layout and procedural changes.”

 

As with any upgrade, additional training is required. Flight crews must complete two four-hour blocks of flight simulator training at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, followed by a flight in order to be certified to fly aircraft with the recent upgrade. All aircrew in the 507th Operations Group will be trained by the summer.

Since the analog components have been removed and the dials have been placed on one screen, the digital display allows the pilot the ability to rearrange the dials as needed.

“The modernization provides redundancy for automation, as well as some changes to the layout of our instrumentation,” said Waters. “The new components are more reliable, and now there is a backup display screen right below the main screen. This should last us until the KC-46 comes on line.”

Block 45 is the third series of modifications to the KC-135 fleet, ensuring the aircraft are modernized in order to maintain their status as the workhorse of the air refueling fleet during the Air Force's transition to the KC-46A Pegasus.

The $910 million dollar modification program has upgraded 29 aircraft to date.