The Perfect “10” of an Aircraft

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Forty years and one day after it made its maiden flight, the Air Force has finally flown its first KC-10 west to the boneyard.

KC-10A 860036 (MSN 48249/424) named the “Peace Maker” was the 50th of the 60 airframes built for the United States Air Force. It was delivered on December 2, 1986 to SAC (Strategic Air Command) and based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Known officially as the “Extender” the KC-10 was affectionately called “The Ten”, “Gucci Jet”, “Duce” and “Big Sexy” by her aircrews.

Tail number 860036 had accumulated 33,022.2 hours on the airframe when it became the first of the KC-10 Extenders to be retired to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona on July 13th 2020.

The KC-10 is a modified military version of the McDonnell Douglas Company DC-10-30CF (convertible freight) model. The Air Force ordered 60 aircraft which were built in Long Beach, California from 1981 to 1988.

The KC-10 features a large cargo compartment in which a support load can be carried. Powered rollers and winches fitted in the compartment allow the aircraft to carry heavy loads. It can accommodate 75 passengers and nearly 170,000 pounds of cargo.

The aircraft is equipped with three main fuel tanks for refueling operations. It is also fitted with three additional fuel tanks under the cargo floor. The six tanks perform refueling operations more efficiently than KC-135 Stratotanker and can accomodate 356,000 pounds of fuel.

It was the October 1973 Yom Kippur War that highlighted the need for aerial refueling. Operation Nickel Grass was the name of the resupply mission of Israel from the United States. With the European nations dependence on Arab nation oil, all European nations except for Portugal, refused the United States to either overfly or land on the resupply missions.

For 32 days MAC (Military Airlift Command) C-5 Galaxy flew 145 missions while C-141A Starlifters flew 421 missions. Without the use of Lajes in the Azores Islands the C-141A would not have had the range to reach Israel. The C-5 could make the flight without refueling. However, the trade off was to greatly reduce the C-5’s cargo capacity from 73 tons the Galaxy is capable of lifting, to 32 tons.

However, in 1973 the C-5 crews were not trained for aerial refueling. The issue being the C-5 Galaxy creates a bow wave between the tanker and the Galaxy when refueling. Engineers felt the unusual angle required for aerial refueling by the C-5 would decrease the life cycle of the Galaxy’s wings.

The lessons learned from Operation Nickel Grass reversed the mindset of the Air Force by demonstrating that two aircraft actually consume less fuel than one aircraft doing ground stops. The Air Force showed that with aerial refueling they could have accomplished the same airlift with 57 fewer C-141 and 44 fewer C-5 missions and saved 48.5 million pounds of fuel (about 25%).

The KC-10 was developed from the 1973 Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft (ATCA) Program. The Air Force sought to augment the KC-135, C-5 and C-141 fleet with a wide-body aircraft that could fulfill the need for a new military tanker and a heavy cargo transport. Both Boeing and McDonnell Douglas entered into the bidding. The Air Force considered buying a combination of 747’s and DC-10’s. However, with billions of dollars trimmed from the defense budget, the Air Force could select only one.

On December 19, 1977 the Air Force announced that a military version of the DC-10 would carry out the new tanker / cargo mission. Officials cited price, life-cycle costs and maintainability as key selection criteria. Perhaps the greatest factor was the size of the smaller KC-10 which could operate from more airports than the fully loaded 747.

Entering operational U.S.A.F. service in October 1981, the KC-10 offered some distinct advantages. It was the first aerial tanker designed with two independent refueling systems. It is equipped with both a flying boom and a hose-and-drogue. The KC-10 could refuel aircraft using either system on the same mission. Aerial refueling operators liked the KC-10 because their job was less fatiguing on long flights. Unlike earlier tankers, in which they had to lie prone for refueling, operators performed their tasks in the KC-10 while seated in an air conditioned compartment.

The Air Force set out to prove the KC-10’s value. On June 21, 1982 the Extender set two world records on one mission. The KC-10 flew within 750 miles of the South Pole establishing the southernmost air refueling ever conducted. The Extender also offloaded 67,400 pounds of aviation fuel to a C-141B that was conducting airdrop resupply mission to the Antarctic South Pole station.

In October 1983 the KC-10 saw its first combat support missions during Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the Island of Grenada.

By 1986, both the bombing of TWA flight 840 over Greece and the “La Belle” discotheque bombing in West Berlin Germany were tied to Libya. President Ronald Reagan authorized a response code named Operation El Dorado Canyon. It would be a defining moment for the KC-10 as once again the European nations denied overfly and landing rights for the mission. Without the overflight being permitted, the route from England to Libya around Europe added 1,300 nautical miles to the trip each way. This made the mission an additional 5,000 nautical miles and added another six to seven hours to the mission.

A combination of KC-10’s and KC-135’s were used for the mission. Approximately 28 tankers in all were used. The KC-10 having twice the range of the KC-135 were selected to escort the strike package all the way to Libya and back to England. The KC-135’s would refuel the KC-10’s keeping them full for the final push to the target.

Before the raid the KC-10 was not stationed in Europe and many of Air Forces F-111 and EF-111 pilots stationed at RAF Lakenheath had never seen one. Furthermore, none of the pilots had ever refueled from the Extender and certainly never did so at night under radio silence. The strike package was refueled four times while en-route to their targets using the ‘mother tanker’ concept. The ‘mother tanker concept refers to each strike package would stay with one designated KC-10 all the way to the target area.

The KC-10 would also support Operation Just Cause in 1989, the invasion of Panama.

By 1990, Operation Desert Shield required an air refueling bridge across the Atlantic Ocean utilizing nearly 100 tankers flying 4,967 sorties while offloading 28.2 million gallons of aviation fuel. By the time Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991, 46 KC-10’s were operating in support of operations. The KC-10 being able to receive air refueling was again tasked with staying on station while the KC-135’s delivered fuel to them.

By 1992 the Air Force reorganized the KC-10’s under SAC’s command and transferred them from Barksdale, March and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base’s to the newly created AMC (Air Mobility Command) and relocated them to McGuire and Travis Air Force Base’s.

The KC-10 would continue to serve in every major American war and operation until this day.

In January 2020, the beginning of the end of Air Force service by the KC-10 was signaled. The Air Force had planned to retire 16 KC-10s this year (FY21). The House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee’s markup of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Air Force to maintain a minimum of 50 primary mission inventory KC-10s in 2021, 38 in 2022, and 26 in 2023.

The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona may not be the last stop for 860036. Her airframe and parts will keep the fleet flying for years to come. Who knows, someday she may return to duty as well. Let’s hope so.

Sometimes you just get lucky and I just happened to catch 860036 returning from its final training mission sortie on March 18th. This is a photo of 860036, callsign DUCE30 on final for landing on its final pass in the pattern at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst on that day.

All photos provided by and taken by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Sean Hetz and Master Sergeant Joseph A. Vigil, except those noted by David F. Brown and by the author.

“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”

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Mike Colaner

Mike Colaner is a native of Central New Jersey and still resides there today with his family. I always had a fascination with aviation with both NAS Lakehurst and McGuire Air Force Base nearby to my boyhood home. Upon graduating High School, I went to work for Piasecki Aircraft Corporation at NAEC Lakehurst. I worked in the engineering department on the PA-97 Helistat project as a draftsman. I soon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served four years active duty with both the 2nd Marine Division and 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. After completing my enlistment, I went to college and became a New Jersey State Trooper. I recently retired after serving 25 years and I am looking for my next adventure. I am very glad that I have been able to join this team and to share my passion with all of you.

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