Soaring to 60: KC-135 remains backbone of AF air refueling

  • Published
  • By Greg L. Davis
  • 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The KC-135 Stratotanker celebrates its 60th anniversary this week. From the start, Tinker Air Force Base has played a crucial role in the longevity of the jet.


“We want to celebrate,” said Col. Mark Mocio, Legacy Tanker division commander and KC-135 program manager. “Tinker has long been the home of the KC-135, we’ve consolidated so much government and industry resources and talent. All that is centered here.”


Tinker’s role began almost immediately after the contract for the purchase of 29 aircraft was let in 1954.


The KC-135’s first flight took place Aug. 31, 1956, from Boeing’s Payne Field in Washington state.


The four-engine, swept-wing jet has a traditional tail configuration and tricycle landing gear. Its most notable feature is the high-speed refueling boom affixed to the underside of the tail and the bulging belly pod in which the boom-operator conducts refueling while laying down backwards.


Because of its maintenance function, Tinker has perhaps the longest continuous association with the KC-135 of any Air Force base. Plans for the aircraft’s maintenance began before the first jet was even delivered to Castle AFB, Calif., in June 1957. Just a few months later, the first aircraft arrived at Tinker to function as a maintenance trainer.


The Air Force’s fleet eventually totaled 732 planes produced between 1954 and 1965. This fleet includes tankers, along with special mission variants for reconnaissance, electronic surveillance, VIP and airborne command posts. Recent upgrades to the cockpit provide digital avionics and systems and some aircraft have been fitted with underwing refueling pods to allow probe-equipped aircraft to refuel simultaneously, if needed.


The KC-135 has been the stalwart refueling asset used to support the United States’ readiness and war capability since reaching initial operating capability. For years the aircraft flew missions in support of the Cold War as part of the nuclear deterrence “Global Reach” capability of Strategic Air Command and other combatant commands. The KC-135 was the primary on-station refueler during the Vietnam Conflict. It has also been the backbone of Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Northern/Southern Watch, Allied Force, Iraqi/Enduring Freedom and is now heavily tasked to support strikes against ISIS in the Middle East. 


The Legacy Tanker program office — headed by Colonel Mocio and his civilian deputy, Charles Darnell — here at Tinker is responsible for lifecycle management of the KC-135 fleet, while  maintenance, repair and overhaul of the KC-135 is conducted at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. 


Mr. Darnell notes the importance of the aircraft to the Air Force’s reliance on the KC-135.


“Without the tankers we don’t do the mission we have to do across the globe,” he said. “The tanker is core to the Air Force projection needs.”


Colonel Mocio elaborated on that point by saying air refueling enables all the Air Force missions.


“Strike projection, bomber projection, nuclear standoff, global mobility is all enabled by the tanker programs managed here at Tinker,” the colonel said. “We have the largest organic Air Force PDM operation. Every five days an aircraft enters or leaves this facility.”


In 1994, the 507th Air Refueling Wing, began operating and maintaining the KC-135 on operational mission’s right here at Tinker Air Force Base. This Air Force Reserve Command unit is continuously supporting worldwide contingency operations and U.S. Strategic Command’s national emergency requirements with eight KC-135 Stratotankers based here. 


Although no ceremonies were held locally this week to mark the 60th anniversary, it’s not because it was forgotten by Team Tinker. The ceremony and other events will take place on Oct. 7, when a slow-down in KC-135 periodic depot maintenance better allows. The current work levels are too high to allow a day-long interruption.


The legendary tanker, which is managed operationally by Air Mobility Command, continues to be the backbone of the Air Force’s air refueling fleet. The 414 Stratotankers currently in service are spread across active-duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units across the continental U.S. and overseas bases. The aircraft is also flown by the air forces of Chile, France, Singapore and Turkey.