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KC-135 Stratotanker reaches historic milestone

An 507th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker alert aircraft taxis from one ramp to another to accommodate for shifting winds during the June Operational Exercise 16 at Tinker AFB, Okla. JOE 16 areas of inspection included maintaining aircraft, securing critical assets, processing personnel and cargo, responding to and launching alert aircraft, running command post operations, and many other critical tasks. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Grady Epperly)

An 507th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker alert aircraft taxis from one ramp to another to accommodate for shifting winds during the June Operational Exercise 16 at Tinker AFB, Okla. JOE 16 areas of inspection included maintaining aircraft, securing critical assets, processing personnel and cargo, responding to and launching alert aircraft, running command post operations, and many other critical tasks. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Grady Epperly)

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a SR-71 Blackbird at an unknown location. The KC-135 has been in the Air Force’s inventory since 1957, serving in many of our nation’s conflicts and supporting the Air Force's Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission, over the past six decades. (Courtesy photo)

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a SR-71 Blackbird at an unknown location. The KC-135 has been in the Air Force’s inventory since 1957, serving in many of our nation’s conflicts and supporting the Air Force's Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission, over the past six decades. (Courtesy photo)

A KC-135R Stratotanker assigned to the 6th Air Refueling Wing, 91st Air Refueling Squadron, at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., flies a training mission over central Florida. The KC-135's principal mission is air refueling while four turbofans, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, power the KC-135 to takeoffs at gross weights up to 322,500 pounds. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Keith Reed)

A KC-135R Stratotanker assigned to the 6th Air Refueling Wing, 91st Air Refueling Squadron, at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., flies a training mission over central Florida. The KC-135's principal mission is air refueling while four turbofans, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, power the KC-135 to takeoffs at gross weights up to 322,500 pounds. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt Keith Reed)

An F-22 Raptor from the 199th Fighter Squadron prepares for air refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker operated by 465th Air Refueling Squadron from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, during Rim of the Pacific 2016 over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, July 26, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory A. Harden II)

An F-22 Raptor from the 199th Fighter Squadron prepares for air refueling from a KC-135R Stratotanker operated by 465th Air Refueling Squadron from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, during Rim of the Pacific 2016 over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, July 26, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gregory A. Harden II)

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, FL -- When Boeing introduced the first KC-135 Stratotanker during the Eisenhower administration, 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-52s 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, Calif., 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, Fla., continue to fly them today.

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. “We as a maintainers are constantly reminded how important our job is because the aircrew 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, Fla.

“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.”

The 507th Air Refueling Wing is home to 8 KC-135 Stratotankers and the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex provides depot level maintenance on the historic aircraft here at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.