Flying Gas Station of the USAF during Red Flag 13-1 and 13-2 (Blue Forces)
The famous Red Flag exercises includes refueling flights for training and support, usually with the KC-135 Stratotanker. A typical Red Flag mission includes three KC-135 aircraft, although often more aircraft are deployed to have airspares. One tanker is for the Red Forces and two aircraft usually refuel the Blue Forces. These two are sometimes split again, one having the boom to refuel “ordinary” USAF aircraft, the second one using the basket to refuel FA-18 Hornets/Super Hornets or Growlers, EA-6B Prowlers or allied aircraft like Mirage, Tornado or Eurofighter/Typhoon. As in conflicts in the last decade, the USAF provides refueling in this exercise for most of the participants, not just for their own.
The tanker aircraft are among the first aircraft to take off during a Red Flag mission; after 90 minutes we were on station in the exercise area. The boomer tested his equipment by letting down the boom and steering it in all directions. The fighters call in via radio and the boomer concentrated on doing his job – refueling aircraft in quick succession. During peacetime, the boomer can talk to the pilots in their jets via the normal radio. If there is silent mode ordered, the boomer gives signals via colored lights before the boom has contact with the receiver aircraft. After contact, there is an intercom line in the boom and the two can now talk to each other without radio.
The fixed boom seems to be the better solution, as contact seems to be quick and safe. The basket has to be caught by the receiver, which, during turbulent times, is challenging. The KC-135 has 10 tanks which offer about 120,000 liters of fuel for refueling. Fighter aircraft receive their fuel with a rate between 570 – 1.700 liters per minute. For bomber and transport aircraft this rate can be increased up to 3,400 Liters. A C-5 Galaxy still needs about 30 minutes to fill its tanks up.
The KC-135 was modified in the recent years to keep its avionics, radios and engines up to date and to get an extension of their lifetime. The largest program was done by BAe which included a glass cockpit and new engines.
Presently, the USAF still has nearly 350 KC-135 in service, surprisingly the flying hours per airframe are only at about 30,000 hours. Despite the fact that special mission C-135s (RC-135, WC-135, etc.) can usually be refueled, only eight KC-135s can be refueled themselves, all are assigned to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.
The KC-135 is one of the safest USAF aircraft models, not one was lost due to enemy action, despite its extensive use in various conflicts over the last few decades. Four aircraft have been lost while refueling other aircraft though.
However, the days of the icon are numbered. Most aircraft are older than their crews, nearly all airframes are more than 50 years now, and its successor the KC-46 is in the process of getting assigned to the units flying the KC-135.
A big thank you to the PAO at Nellis AFB for enabling this report. Your help and support and effort is really appreciated.