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Soaring to Sixty: KC-135 remains backbone of air refueling

Tankers were essential in allowing heavy fighter-bombers to reach North Vietnamese targets and return. Tinker Air Force Base's role began almost immediately after the contract for the purchase of 29 aircraft in 1954. The KC-135’s first flight took place Aug. 31, 1956, from Boeing’s Payne Field in Washington state. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Tankers were essential in allowing heavy fighter-bombers to reach North Vietnamese targets and return. Tinker Air Force Base's role began almost immediately after the contract for the purchase of 29 aircraft in 1954. The KC-135’s first flight took place Aug. 31, 1956, from Boeing’s Payne Field in Washington state. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A KC-135R Stratotanker operated and maintained by the 507th Air Refueling Wing flies by an air show crowd in 2014 at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma.  In 1994, the 507th ARW began operating and maintaining the KC-135 on operational mission's here. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Mark Hybers)

A KC-135R Stratotanker operated and maintained by the 507th Air Refueling Wing flies by an air show crowd in 2014 at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. In 1994, the 507th ARW began operating and maintaining the KC-135 on operational mission's here. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Mark Hybers)

160720-F-EW270-219 JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (July 20, 2016) A U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla during Rim of the Pacific 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo\Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

160720-F-EW270-219 JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (July 20, 2016) A U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet prepares to receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla during Rim of the Pacific 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo\Tech. Sgt. Lauren Gleason)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. - The KC-135 Stratotanker celebrates its 60th anniversary this week and from the start, Tinker Air Force Base has played a crucial role in the longevity of the jet while operating and maintaining this strategic aircraft.

In the mid-fifties Strategic Air Command, under the direction of General Curtis Lemay, needed an air refueling aircraft 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.

Tinker’s role began almost immediately after the contract for the purchase of 29 aircraft in 1954. The KC-135’s first flight took place Aug. 31, 1956, from Boeing’s Payne Field in Washington state.

Because of its maintenance function, Tinker has perhaps the longest continuous association of any Air Force base, as plans for the aircraft’s maintenance began before the first jet was even delivered to Castle AFB, California in June 1957. Just a few months later, the first aircraft visited Tinker to become a maintenance trainer.

The Air Force’s fleet eventually totaled 732 planes produced between 1954 and 1965. This fleet includes tankers, along with special mission variants for reconnaissance, electronic surveillance, VIP and airborne command posts. In 1976, Air Force Reserve Command received their first KC-135.

 The KC-135 has been the stalwart refueling asset used to support the United States’ readiness and war capability since reaching initial operating capability. For years the aircraft flew missions in support of the Cold War as part of the nuclear deterrence “Global Reach” capability of Strategic Air Command and other combatant commands.

The KC-135 was the primary on-station refueler during the Vietnam Conflict. It has also been the backbone of Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Northern /Southern Watch, Allied Force, Iraqi/Enduring Freedom and is now heavily tasked to support strikes against ISIS in the Middle East many of those missions are flow by crews here at Tinker.  

In 1994, the 507th Air Refueling Wing began operating and maintaining the KC-135 on operational mission's here. The 507th is an Air Force Reserve Command unit and is continuously supporting worldwide contingency operations and U.S. Strategic Command's national emergency requirements with eight KC-135 Stratotankers. The Citizen Airmen of the unit are proud of their contribution to the history of this airframe.

“We take a lot of pride is operating and maintaining the KC-135,” Col. Douglas Gullion, 507th Air Refueling Wing commander said. “It’s an amazing aircraft but it would not be flying if it was not for the men and women of the U.S. Air Force. The KC-135 is a true testament of the dedication of generations of Airmen past and present from engineers and aircrew to mechanics on the ground.”     

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. The latest upgrade is the KC-135R Block 45 which provides an improvement to the flight deck that provides flight crews with an updated autopilot and digital panels. 

The Legacy Tanker program office headed by Colonel Mocio and his civilian deputy, Charles Darnell here at Tinker are responsible for lifecycle management of the KC-135 fleet while maintenance, repair and overhaul of the KC-135 are conducted here at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex.

Mr. Darnell notes the importance of the aircraft to the Air Force’s reliance on the KC-135.

“Without the tankers, we don’t do the mission we have to do across the globe,” he said. “The tanker is core to the Air Force projection needs.”

Colonel Mocio elaborated on that point by saying air refueling enables all the Air Force missions.

“Strike projection, bomber projection, nuclear standoff, global mobility is all enabled by the tanker programs managed here at Tinker,” the colonel said. “We have the largest organic Air Force PDM operation. Every five days an aircraft enters or leaves this facility.”

The legendary tanker, continues to be the backbone of the Air Force’s air refueling fleet. The 414 Stratotankers currently in service are spread across active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units across the continental U.S. and overseas bases. The aircraft is also flown by the air forces of Chile, France, Singapore and Turkey. (Greg Davis, Maj. Jon Quinlan and Capt. Joe Simms contributed to this report)