About Lieutenant Colonel Mike Pillion’s and KC-10A 860036’s Fini Flights.
As 860036 was prepared for the boneyard, its flying boom was removed while still at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The all volunteer crew was piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Pillion, who was making his Fini Flight and retiring from the U.S. Air Force. LTC Pillion granted us an exclusive interview about his and 860036’s Fini Flights.
I understand you were initially a helicopter pilot and was wondering which airframe you piloted?
“My first assignment was with the rescue unit at Patrick AFB, FL flying the HH-3E. Our mission was to provide security within the Eastern Test Range during missile launches plus resupply downrange radar tracking stations in the Bahamas. After the Space Shuttle “Challenger” explosion in 1986 our mission evolved to include rescue and recovery for all shuttle launches.”
Since becoming a KC-10 pilot in 1989, you had the opportunity to serve in both the Strategic Air Command (SAC) and the Air Mobility Command (AMC). In what ways have you seen the capabilities of the KC-10 expand during its service?
“There have been some significant changes to employing the KC-10, more as a result of world events then changing from SAC to AMC. Since Operation DESERT STORM, KC-10s have deployed to support air refueling requirements in Europe, the Pacific and Southwest Asia. Wherever it was needed, the KC-10 performed brilliantly and demonstrated how vital air refueling is to ensure our national objectives.”
The rumors have been swirling for about ten years now that the KC-10 would be retiring. However, something always seemed to save the KC-10 from the budget axe. Do you believe the KC-10 has reached the end of its service life?
“Absolutely not. The KC-10 has undergone many upgrades beginning with the FMS-800, then the CNS/ATM modification, and most recently the entire fleet completed Mode 5 upgrade. With additional funding, the KC-10 could continue to fly for 20 more years. No tanker has a greater fuel offload capability so AMC should focus solely on the KC-10’s air refueling mission. There are plenty of other aircraft that can move cargo so utilizing the KC-10 for long haul air refueling would be its ideal mission in the future.”
In your career did you have a favorite aircraft that you looked forward to refueling?
“I think refueling the B-2 was my favorite. During my deployment to Anderson AFB, we supported air refueling for B-2’s temporarily stationed there. One night, a B-2 departed Guam for Whiteman AFB and we provided their first refueling so they could make it back home nonstop. Their flight covered over 6000 miles that night. Since then, every time that I’ve refueled a B-2, I can’t help but wonder where in the world their mission will take them.”
Do you believe the KC-10 retirement will be short-lived and we will see them make their way to civilian cargo, military contractor or fire service duty?
“I don’t understand why the Air Force would continue to retire KC-10s while KC-46 deliveries are delayed. I’m hopeful that Congress will recognize that funding the KC-10 for many years is absolutely necessary, in part, because of these delays. Back in February, General Miller spoke about the feasibility study of contracting with civilian air refueling operators and how that could relieve stress on the tanker force. Yet, if more jets are retired, I would imagine that a civilian operator like Omega could purchase boom and drogue capable KC-10s and put them to immediate use.”
Do you know how 860036 was selected to be the first KC-10 to be retired?
“I am not 100 percent sure why it was selected.”
When you took the controls of 860036 for the final time, did you think more about the aircraft taking its last flight or of your own last flight at the controls?
“I honestly was thinking about 86-0036 being on its final flight. The jet will most likely be cannibalized as soon as possible since many KC-10 parts are not readily available. While I hope to continue flying in the civilian world, I’ll always feel privileged to fly a proud workhorse like 86-0036 into retirement on my final military flight.”
I would like to thank Lieutenant Colonel Mike Pillion for granting me this exclusive interview and sharing an insider’s view into the KC-10. I wish him a wonderful and rewarding retirement and future.
All photos provided by and taken by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sean Hetz and Master Sergeant Joseph A. Vigil.
“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”