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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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!