1956 - 2009, Celebrating  over 50 Years of Service
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Boeing KC-135 refuels a Northrop B-2 in an evening exercise. (USAF photo from Paul Minert collection)

     On September 8-9, 2006, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker was recognized for its 50 years of aerial achievements and the sustained worthiness of the aircraft in its support of national defense in ceremonies at Tinker AFB, Okla., home of the KC-135 depot. 
     Fifty years ago on August 31, 1956, Boeing’s KC-135A, 55-3118, with Tex Johnson and Dix Loesch at the controls lifted off on its first flight. The flight was ten days ahead of schedule and Johnson remarked that it flew "better even than the prototype,” the experimental "Dash 80.” This event, driven by the operational needs of the Strategic Air Command under the leadership of Gen. Curtis E. LeMay expanded the air-refueling mission into the jet. The KC-135A was soon replacing the Air Force’s four-engine, propeller-driven fleet of KB-29s, KB-50s and KC-97s. This year’s anniversary is indeed a golden achievement for the KC-135.
     At a time when bombers had transitioned to turbojet propulsion, the Air Force needed a refueling fleet that could carry a bigger payload of fuel and travel at airspeeds exceeding 450 mph. Boeing used their 367-80 prototype to demonstrate that they had the answer to this requirement. The Air Force was convinced and the result, the KC-135, has proven valuable beyond the vision of the original procurers.

An early photo of Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker, 55-3118, the first of the line, shown here refueling a Boeing B-52C-50-BO, 54-2676. 
Boeing used the B-52C as a test aircraft until it crashed during a test flight on March 29, 1957. 
(Boeing Aircraft photo from Paul Minert collection)

  Prior to 1956, B-52s often had to lower their landing gear to create enough aerodynamic drag in order to match the slower KC-97s in-flight speed. This maneuver presented potential landing gear retraction problems for the B-52s and expended many pounds of fuel unnecessarily when the bombers sought to regain their cruising altitudes and speeds. The introduction of the KC-135 eliminated this situation.
     The KC-135A’s fuel capacity of more than 31,000 gallons was more than double the KC-97’s 14,900 gallons. Furthermore, it was capable of delivering this fuel load to thirsty aircraft at a speed 125 mph faster than the airspeed of the KC-97.Operational units began receiving KC-135As in 1957 with the first active-duty group being the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Castle AFB, Calif. The Air National Guard’s 146th ARS, 160th Air Refueling Wing at Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio, was the first unit to receive KC-135As some 18 years following its operational debut. In 1976, the Air Force Reserve received their first KC-135 with it going to the 336th ARS, 452nd Air Refueling Wing at March AFB, Calif. Though the Reserve wing and its flying squadrons have undergone a number of changes over the years, the 336th ARS still flies KC-135s today as part of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing at March Air Reserve Base.
     During its career, the KC-135 has seen a number of engine upgrades that have enhanced its operational capabilities. These models were designated KC-135E, R and T. These engine upgrades have significantly increased the KC-135s power, fuel efficiency and environmental compatibility. The net results of the changes have been a 26 percent more fuel-efficient aircraft and a 95 percent reduction in engine noise with engines producing almost double the thrust of the original J-57 turbojets.

Boeing KC-135R, 58-0100, currently serving with the 351st ARS, 100th ARW based at RAF Mindenhall, England, at Tinker AFB, Okla., during the 50th anniversary celebration, September 8-9, 2006. This aircraft was originally delivered as a KC-135A and later upgraded to a KC-135R with the retrofitting of the CFM-56 engines. (Photo by Jerry Gerry)


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 some 40 passengers. It can perform in an aero-medical role capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets and a medial crew of flight nurses and medical technicians. The platform has also been adapted for other roles as well including the C-135 transporter, EC-135 flying command posts, RC-135 reconnaissance and NKC-135 test flight operations.
     A total of 820 aircraft were manufactured with 732 of these being KC-135A models. In fact, as a testament to the original design, the Air Force took delivery of KC-135s from April 30, 1957, to January 6, 1966, without a major change in configuration and only a few Engineering Change Proposals. The first new model variants were not ordered until the production program was over seven years old. The original airframes ordered (excluding retrofit re-designations) of all types are shown in Table 1.
     Significant operations that the KC-135 has supported during its career:

The business end of the KC-135 Stratotanker, seen here refueling a two-seat McDonnell Douglas F15 Eagle. (Photo from Boeing Aircraft)
  • Cold War alerts while in SAC
  • Vietnam War air operations to include 
              Arc Light, Commando Hunt and Linebacker
  • Urgent Fury in Grenada
  • Just Cause in Panama
  • El Dorado Canyon in Libya
  • Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf
  • Desert Shield and Desert Storm 
               in Southwest Asia
  • Allied Force(Kosovo) in the Balkans
  • Northern Watch and Southern Watch 
               in Southwest Asia
  • Noble Eagle air defense of the 
               United States
  • Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
  • Iraqi Freedom in Iraq
  • Worldwide Global War on Terrorism

Table 1
Aircraft Orders by Type

KC-135A Stratotankers (SAC)
KC-135B Stratotankers (SAC) 
RC-135B (SAC) 
C-135A Stratolifters (MATS) 
C-135B Stratolifters (MATS) 
RC-135A (MATS) 
C-135F Stratotankers (French A.F.) 




The flight deck of the KC-135 Stratotanker with updated glass panel. (Photo from Boeing Aircraft)

The KC-135 has had a distinguished career with many noteworthy special events of their contribution that distinguished the aircraft and their crews.
     Such an event occurred in May 1967 over the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam when Maj. John Casteel and his crew from the 902nd ARS performed a tri-level refueling engagement. The crew was credited with eight aircraft saves that day and in July of that year became the first SAC tanker crew to win the coveted Mackay Trophy for meritorious flight achievement.
     On the first day of the Gulf War, January 17, 1991, Capt. David Horton and his active-duty KC-135 crew from the 70th ARS, Grissom AFB, were credited with a F-117 fighter save. Responding to a "may-day” call by the F-117 pilot, whose aircraft was dangerously low on fuel, the KC-135 crew despite foul weather performed a refueling "toboggan” maneuver that dispensed the needed fuel just in time to save the fighter. As they broke-off, the F-117 pilot saluted the tanker crew and said, "You guys really saved my bacon today.
”The aircraft has served as the transport aircraft for the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff ("Speckled Trout”), VIP transport, with the FAA (Pacer Clerk high altitude jet route certification) and NASA ("Weightless Wonder IV,” aka the "Vomit Comet”), airborne command post /communications aircraft, reconnaissance (Joint Rivet and Open Skies), airborne launch control system including operation Looking Glass and training variants.  

   The 50th Anniversary Celebrations hosted by the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker AFB, Okla., included aircraft from 22 ARW, McConnell AFB, Kan.; 100 ARW, RAF Mildenhall, England; 121 ARW, Rickenbacker ANGB, Ohio; 126 ARW, Scott AFB, Ill.; 190 ARW, Forbes Field ANBG, Kan.; 459 ARW, Andrews AFB, Md.; 507 ARW, Tinker AFB, Okla.; 916 ARW, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.; and 927 ARW, Selfridge ANGB, Mich. (AFRES) (Awarded "Best Maintained Aircraft”). During the ceremonies, the 507 ARW and 55th Wing provided flyovers with KC-135R and OC-135 aircraft, respectively. Those attending the banquet Saturday evening enjoyed a keynote speech from Lt. Gen. Christopher Kelly, Vice Commander, Air Mobility Command. Robert J. Conner, Director of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center was host for the event.

An unidentified KC-135A of an Air Force Reserve
  refueling squadron in flight. 
(Photo from Boeing Aircraft)


An excellent and detailed history of the development and deployment of the KC-135 can be found in Don Logan’s book, The Boeing C-135 Series, Schiffer Military History, 4880 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, PA 19310, 1998, ISBN 0-7643-0286-8, $49.95

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