Tanker Crews Keep ‘Em Flying at Red Flag
An exceptional array of aircraft contribute during each Red Flag exercise. Participation runs the gamut from mighty USAF B-2 stealth bombers to visiting allied aircraft like the Colombian Air Force’s Kfir C2s, which attended Red Flag 12-4. Of all the different types of aircraft attending Red Flag though, the one type that is usually present is the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker.
The KC-135 type, with over 50 years of continuous service to the USAF and its allies, has become a staple of many exercises around the globe. The Stratotanker was initially tasked to refuel strategic bombers, but its scope grew to support operations during the Vietnam War and later conflicts such as Operation Desert Storm, extending the range and endurance of US tactical fighters and bombers. This “train as you fight” principle is followed during Red Flag missions.
The KC-135 was derived from the Boeing 367-80 jet transport “proof of concept” demonstrator, which was commonly called the “Dash-80”. As such the KC-135 is similar in appearance to the 707, but has a narrower fuselage and is shorter than the 707. The basic aircraft still looks the same as it did over 50 years ago with the exception of upgraded engines on the “R” model. All KC-135s were originally equipped with Pratt & Whitney J-57-P-59W turbojet engines; this early engine utilized a water injection system to boost thrust for takeoff.
In the 1980s the first modification program to re-engine the KC-135 utilized Pratt & Whitney TF-33-PW-102 engines from 707 airliners retired in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Designated the KC-135E, this modification resulted in 14% more fuel efficiency over the KC-135A; however the maximum takeoff weight was not increased for the E-model.
Needing increased performance, a second modification program re-engined 500 aircraft with new CFM International CFM56 (military designation: F108) engines produced by General Electric and Snecma.
The re-engined tanker, designated the KC-135R (modified KC-135A or E) or KC-135T (modified KC-135Q), can offload up to 50% more fuel, is 25% more fuel efficient, costs 25% less to operate and is 96% quieter than the KC-135A. Along with several avionics and system upgrades some KC-135R aircraft utilize refueling pods on the wings. The pods allow refueling of U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and most NATO tactical jet aircraft while keeping the tail-mounted refueling boom in its standard configuration.
One of the highlights for credentialed media attending Red Flag is to be included aboard a tanker orientation flight. The PAO staff at Nellis AFB goes out of their way to accommodate the visiting media and provide the full Red Flag experience. Our tanker flights took place the second week of Red Flag 13-2, flying with the 931st ARG / 22nd Air Refueling Wing, McConnell AFB, Kansas. Below are some images from those flights, along with a few from past missions we had the opportunity to attend. We would like to sincerely thank the PAO staff at Nellis and the tanker crews that demonstrated the very important role this iconic aircraft plays in this world class training exercise.
After 50 + years of service this oldie but a goodie keeps both Red and Blue air assets up and on the range to sharpen their skills to keep the US and its allies the premiere fighting forces of the free world.
More KC-135 Info;
The KC-135 Stratotanker provides the core aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 50 years. This unique asset enhances the Air Force’s capability to accomplish its primary mission of global reach. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.
Four turbofans, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, power the KC-135 to takeoffs at gross weights of up to 322,500 pounds. A cargo deck above the refueling system can hold a mixed load of passengers and cargo. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo.
Nearly all internal fuel can be pumped through the flying boom, the KC-135’s primary fuel transfer method. One crewmember, known as the boom operator, is stationed in the rear of the plane and controls the boom during in-flight air refueling.
A special shuttlecock-shaped drogue attached to and trailing behind the flying boom may be used to refuel aircraft fitted with probes. Some aircraft have been configured with the multipoint refueling system, which consists of special pods mounted on the wingtips. These KC-135s are capable of refueling two receiver aircraft at the same time.
Primary Function: Aerial refueling and airlift
Prime Contractor: The Boeing Company
Power Plant: CFM International CFM-56 turbofan engines
Thrust: 21,634 pounds each engine
Wingspan: 130 feet, 10 inches (39.88 meters)
Length: 136 feet, 3 inches (41.53 meters)
Height: 41 feet, 8 inches (12.7 meters)
Speed: 530 miles per hour at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters)
Ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,240 meters)
Range: 1,500 miles (2,419 kilometers) with 150,000 pounds (68,039 kilograms) of transfer fuel; ferry mission, up to 11,015 miles (17,766 kilometers)
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 322,500 pounds (146,285 kilograms)
Maximum Transfer Fuel Load: 200,000 pounds (90,719 kilograms)
Maximum Cargo Capability: 83,000 pounds (37,648 kilograms), 37 passengers
Pallet Positions: 6
Crew: Three: pilot, co-pilot and boom operator. Some KC-135 missions require the addition of a navigator. The Air Force has a limited number of navigator suites that can be installed for unique missions.
Aeromedical Evacuation Crew: A basic crew of five (two flight nurses and three medical technicians) is added for aeromedical evacuation missions. Medical crew may be altered as required by the needs of patients.
Unit Cost: $39.6 million (fiscal 98 constant dollars)
Date Deployed: August 1956
Inventory: Active duty, 167; Air National Guard, 180; Air Force Reserve, 67
Photos: Joe Kates, Dave Budd and Phil Myers