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Sun, Sep 17, 2006

The Venerable KC-135 Celebrates 50 Years

Boeing's Original Swept Wing Design Has Aged Well

by ANN Associate Editor Mark Sletten

It's hard to believe the US Military operates 50-year-old aircraft, but they do... every day, 24/7. The KC-135 is the USAF's primary in-flight refueling tanker, and also happens to be one of its most valuable tools -- nobody goes anywhere without gas, and the KC-135 has 30,000 gallons of what everybody needs.

On September 6th, a group of 40 local business leaders gathered at Fairchild AFB, WA near Spokane to celebrate the KC-135's 50th birthday. And what a day that was...

When Boeing's CEO, Bill Allen, asked Tex Johnson, test pilot for the then under-development 707 program, to do a fly-by with the prototype for the International Air Transport Association convention in Seattle in 1956, he got more than he bargained for -- a lot more!

Tex looked at his job as a dual role of sorts. Yes, he was a test pilot, but he was also a salesman. He asked himself "What would make me want to buy this plane?" To him, the answer was obvious, so when he did the fly-by, he threw in a barrel roll for good measure!

While Allen wasn't exactly happy about it (he told Tex, "Let's not do it anymore..."), the Air Force was sold and took delivery of the first KC-135 a year later. And they kept taking deliveries until they had nearly 900 of them. I don't think Boeing was paying Tex Johnson enough...

The 707, from which the KC-135 derived, became the template from which all air transport aircraft since are designed. If you look at any airliner today, you'll see the same design elements; the sweep angle on the wings, which also serve as fuel tanks, the engines on pylons on the wing and retractable main gear near the wing root folding into the fuselage -- these are all basic elements of that first prototype from fifty years ago.

Fifty years later, in celebration, the USAF flew a two-ship KC-135 refueling cell from Fairchild, east to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, and met with another tanker from McConnel AFB, KS. The third KC-135 was an R/T model, meaning it was capable of receiving as well as offloading fuel.

Two guests in each aircraft sat in the cockpit during most of the flight, and watched the refueling from the boom pod. Their adventure was chronicled in an article on AF Link, the USAF's news service.

"The airplane has state-of-the-art technology, and that along with the pilots' expertise allowed us to experience an amazing flight. These airplanes were so close during take off, yet you couldn't even feel the air buffeting from the other plane," said Scott Philipps, a computer software analyst with Avista Corporations.

Mr. Philipps was referring to the Minimum Interval Takeoff (MITO) procedure crews practice to enable tankers to depart an airport and remain together without requiring an in-flight rendezvous.

"I was so impressed to see how our aircraft was able to take off 30 seconds after the first one without us feeling anything unusual. I had never felt such an exhilarating feeling," said Jennifer Simmons, of Northern Quest Casino's Kalispel tribe. "These crews know their stuff."

Ms. Simmons surely got an eyeful from her vantage point in the cockpit. During a MITO, as one jet is rotating for lift off, the other is only a few thousand feet behind accelerating for its own takeoff -- exhilarating indeed!

One of the young Boom Operators on the flight had a little adventure of his own. Senior Airman Tony Montani said, "I have refueled several types of aircraft many times before, but I had never refueled a KC-135, so today was both my first time and an honor to be a part of this special day."

An American Hero

The tanker has a storied history. Its worth as a force multiplier became immediately apparent during the Viet Nam conflict. The Young Tiger Tanker Task Force, flying out of bases in Guam, Thailand, Viet Nam and others, quickly made many friends among the fighter and bomber crews who benefited from having all the gas they needed virtually any time they needed it.

Many times, in direct contravention of standing orders, tanker crews abandoned their assigned refueling orbits near the DMZ proceeding north to rendezvous with a stricken fighter in trouble and trying to get back to safety.

Sometimes, it was just a hole in the gas tank and a constant flow of fuel from the tanker was enough to get them home. At other times, it was a total engine failure and the tanker crew would have to position themselves in front of the descending fighter, hook up with the boom, and literally tow the fighter home. Talk about a lift!

Luckily for the tanker crews, their leadership wisely determined they couldn't punish an airman for wanting to save a comrade in arms. While never actually condoning the practice, leadership eventually tolerated "tanker saves," with some crews even receiving decorations for their valor.

A few years later, during the cold war, hundreds of tankers sat fully-fueled across the US heartland, ready for engine start along with their receivers, the mighty B-52 Stratofortress. To us, and everyone else in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), they were "Buffs," short for Big Ugly Flying "Fellows" (substitute your own "F" noun in the quotes if you don't mind a little gutter humor -- it's a Boom Operator thing).

The crews, all SAC members, were ready to launch at a moment's notice -- we called it sitting alert -- in the event of a nuclear attack by the world's only other superpower, the USSR. This sitting alert force comprised  a third of the nuclear deterrent keeping the Soviet Union in check (the other two-thirds were SAC's ICBM force and the Navy's ICBM-equipped submarine fleet).

The Buffs could carry a lot of bombs, and they could carry a lot of gas, but they couldn't take off with a lot of both. Since they needed to be far enough inland to give them time to get airborne before the ICBMs hit, they needed the gas to fly the staggering distance to their target -- tankers were the only way to get the job done. Inflight refueling made it possible for the Buffs to launch with the ordnance, then get the gas they needed after takeoff to complete their pre-planned nuclear attack missions.

Back then, MITO was the only way to get all the aircraft airborne before everything dissapeared in one short flash... t'was a different time! 

Eventually, the deterrent having served its purpose, the USSR -- unable to keep up economically -- fell apart. The tanker, its crews and maintainers had performed an invaluable service to our country in enabling the Soviet's defeat; efficiently, reliably and quietly... as always.

Fast forward to Operation Allied Force, where for the first time a hostile military force was compelled to capitulate solely on the strength of air power. The country was ringed by air refueling tracks with orbiting tankers giving strike aircraft incredible flexibility, and making possible the relentless pressure of constant aerial observation and assault. Milosevic's eventual defeat by Allied air forces alone would have been a tactical and strategic impossibility without the KC-135 and its crews.

The KC-135 is fifty now, but it still performs its mission as well as it did when new. In fact, upgrades such as the new CFM-56 engines and a Collins avionics suite including GPS enhanced INS, weather radar and a glass cockpit make it more capable than ever.

This author still remembers his first flight in a KC-135, back then an "A" model which required water injected into the engine on takeoff for improved engine thrust (that's me in the photo). I spent 20 years in the USAF working at the business end of the KC-135 as a Boom Operator. But my first flight... I'll always remember. It was Feb 1981, I was a dumb 19-year-old, a lot skinnier than I am now, flying in an aircraft that was, even then, 5 years older than me...

I remember looking out the window in the over-wing hatch as we bounced around the traffic pattern that day at Castle AFB, CA. We had already completed our refueling for the day; I'd made my first contact with a Buff, and held the boom steady while the pilots pumped a token 1000 lbs -- what a gas! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

It was winter, but still hot in north-central California. The thermals were picking up that afternoon, and we were getting thumped pretty good down low in the pattern. With only four windows in the back of the jet, there's not much to see, and I was getting queasy from all the rolling and yanking (co-pilot training, you know... he he, still can't help making fun of 'em).

But despite my physical discomfort, I distinctly remember thinking, having left a job washing dishes at Denny's scant months before, "How many people get to do this for a living?" Now, all these year later, I know... not many, young man, not many...

And those that have will tell you; it's the best job in the world. You get two officers to drive you to work so you can lay on your stomach and pass gas, all while flying in one of the greatest technical achievements in man's history, the KC-135!

The KC-135 -- Viet Nam hero, cold war relic, and modern-day warrior. Fifty years young and with its crews still standing post in defense of our country. Happy Birthday old Friend, and many, many more!

And remember, NKAWTG... Nobody!

The author and ANN salutes the men and women of the 92 Air Refueling Wing, and those who serve their country as members of our Armed Forces -- you are all heroes!

FMI: www.af.mil

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