History is often on the minds of those who fly and maintain the KC-135 Stratotankers at Fairchild Air Force Base.
“Every once in a while I’ll sit in a jet and just think, ‘Wow, there are people who have long since retired and have flown this before me.’ They’ve flown in Vietnam and they’ve just been around for ages,” said Capt. Ryan Boedeker. “It’s literally like flying a classic car with a Lamborghini engine.”
Fairchild Air Force Base, home of the largest tanker wing in the world, marked 64 years of service for the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling plane on Monday.
The Air Force placed an order for 29 KC-135 Stratotankers in 1954 and the first flight happened two years later.
KC-135s have been used in every major contingency since the Cold War, including in many humanitarian missions. Currently, the tanker is used for three types of missions: refueling other planes in midair, carrying cargo and medical evacuations.
“One of the things I love about flying the tanker is because of the receivers that we refuel. We get involved in a whole spectrum of operations between, obviously tactical aspects, with our fighters and our bombers, supporting other airlift operations, and also some reconnaissance missions as well,” said Maj. Nicholaus Herr, 92 Operations Group Chief of Readiness at Fairchild.
Currently, the Air Force has 415 stratotankers in the inventory with a variety of upgrades. The last KC-135 came off the assembly line in 1965, Herr said.
When the KC-46 Pegasus, another military aerial refueling jet was assigned to McConnell Air Force Base, the KC-135 squadrons at that base in Kansas were transferred to Fairchild, the last of which will be fully operational at Fairchild later this year.
For Boedeker, flying the KC-135 helped him find community. He joined the Air Force in 2013 after his Army veteran father encouraged him to join.
After four years of training at the Air Force Academy, Boedeker was selected to fly KC-135s.
“The KC-135 is what I wanted to fly, I thought it was a cool old jet,” Boedeker said. “I really liked the crew aspect.”
On a KC-135 a small crew consists of a pilot, co-pilot and a boom operator. On long missions a second pilot, along with multiple crew chiefs, are added.
“The KC-135 has just such a big community aspect,” Boedeker said. “Everyone talks to each other. You get to meet so many people from different walks of life.”
Being in charge of such a large plane is “humbling,” Boedeker said.
Boedeker often contemplates the history of the plane. He even went to the Smithsonian Museum to see some of the earlier versions.
“Every time I fly a ’58 model I always tell my dad, because he was born in 1958,” Boedeker said. “So I think that aspect is pretty cool, to fly a jet that literally was built the same time my dad was born.”
With that legacy, Boedeker often thinks about those who flew before him.
While Boedeker loves he the history of the plane, he also knows one day he’ll be part of the history too.
“It’s here to stay for a long time, too,” Boedeker said. “They always say the last KC-135 pilot hasn’t been born yet, and I think that’s true.”
Like Boedeker, Technical Sgt. Eric Stevenson, 29, appreciates the historic craftsmanship of the KC-135 as he works to keep the plane “airworthy.”
“My job is the flying inspections that keep this jet airworthy, so anything from cleaning the windows and adding gas to changing tires and small liner components,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson joined the Air Force 10 years ago with twin daughters on the way. He was looking for a way to support his family while getting out of his hometown of Trout Creek, Montana.
He told his recruiter he wanted to “travel and see the world.”
“I’ve been fortunate enough to get the right aircraft to do that,” Stevenson said.
Like most of her crew mates, Airman First Class, Abrena Irons, 25, loves the history of the KC-135.
Irons operates the boom that carries the fuel from the Stratotanker to the plane below.
“My job is to refuel other airplanes in flight, so that they can do what they need to do and complete their mission,” Irons said. “To me this is the best enlisted job in the Air Force, because of just how fun the mission is and what we get to do.”
Irons, from Sacramento, California, followed in her father’s footsteps by joining the Air Force two years ago after struggling to find a passion in college.
Boom operators go through about eight months of training from instructors.
“A lot of the instructors you have in school are people that have done the job for, like, 20-30 years and they just love the KC-135 so much, they want to come and teach,” Irons said.
Irons’ favorite plane to refuel so far was an MC-130.
“It’s a slower aircraft. It uses propellers, so it provides a different kind of challenge,” she said.
Since becoming a boom operator, Irons has found her passion in cybersecurity. She plans to go back to college with the help of the Air Force and get her degree.
“It’s just amazing that an air frame with decades of years on it is still being used. It’s still such a such an important part of the mission for the Air Force,” she said.
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