Fuel is liquid gold for the U.S. Air Force, but the service’s new tankers still can’t deliver it.
That means Fairchild Air Force Base – and a fleet of decades-old aircraft assigned there – will remain a linchpin for fueling aircraft in midflight for at least the next three years.
“Anytime there is a developing crisis in the world, you can expect Fairchild has gotten a phone call,” said 92d Operations Group Commander Col. Russell Davis, who oversees squadrons with dozens of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers.
That’s in stark contrast to the newer but troubled Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker, which Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he would only call on in case of a large-scale conflict, despite acknowledging there is a tanker shortage in the Air Force.
The KC-46 has a flawed visual system that doesn’t allow fuel boom operators to focus in on the final 10 feet between the end of the boom and the plane the tanker is refueling. Finding a solution for that is expected to delay putting the aircraft into daily operations until 2023 or 2024.
“There is the high potential for striking the aircraft around the circle if you can’t actually see it very close,” Goldfein said during U.S. Senate testimony this week.
McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas received the first of a planned 179 KC-46s for the Air Force in January 2019, a year behind schedule, according to Air Force Magazine. The Air Force budget supported the purchase of 15 of the tankers in 2019 and 12 in 2020. So far, the planes, which boast extra fuel and cargo capacity over the KC-135, are only able to transport passengers and cargo, with certification for aeromedical evacuations pending.
Local and state officials lobbied for more than a decade to send the tankers to Fairchild. The base lost out to McConnell, but in the process has become the Air Force’s – and perhaps the world’s – largest heavy tanker wing.
When the KC-46s were sent to McConnell, 12 KC-135s were shifted to Fairchild, the last of which is slated to arrive by April, bringing the total number of tankers assigned to Fairchild to 63, Davis said. The additional planes led to the reactivation of a historical squadron and could bring about 1,000 additional airmen and their families to the area.
Meanwhile, U.S. Transportation Command Gen. Stephen Lyons has said air refueling is the most stressed force element under his purview and that the Air Force’s proposed plan to retire 13 KC-135s plus 16 KC-10 tankers in 2021 will only make that shortage worse, meaning a dip in operational capability.
Lyons asked Congress for $110 million to buy back 23 of the tankers targeted for cuts, Air Force Magazine reported.
On any given day, about two dozen of Fairchild’s KC-135s could take off from the base or from wherever they are deployed around the globe for missions and training, Davis said. At least 10 of the tankers tend to be stationed abroad at a time.
“Anywhere you have Americans at risk, a tanker is nearby,” Davis said.
Fairchild’s No. 1 mission is Operation Noble Eagle, which focuses on homeland security in the air, Davis said. Aircraft are on 24/7 alert for situations like when a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport mechanic stole a passenger plane in 2018 and crashed it, killing himself while tailed by fighter jets.
The KC-135s are also heavily involved in conventional air refueling missions in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Davis said. The tankers support bombers and fighter planes, which have limited fuel capacity.
“You’ve got to have an airborne fuel capability” to send planes down range into conflict, Davis said. “It is the backbone of deterrence.”
The KC-135 is key to that capability, Davis said.
But critical to that is maintenance.
Master Sgt. Nick Clevinger, a hydraulics section chief for 92d Maintenance Squadron, oversees about 60 hydraulic maintainers who have special training to take care of the two hydraulic actuators and four lines that go into a functioning fuel boom.
“We own the boom,” said Clevinger. “That is our pride and joy.”
Fairchild recently updated its maintenance program to mirror that of commercial airlines, which monitor parts and replace them before they are broken. Since the planes were sent to Fairchild in 1958, they’ve received new engines and avionics, among many other upgrades.
Clevinger said maintainers recently identified about 20 parts for maintainers to track for hourly use. When a part hits a certain threshold, it gets replaced.
That has been crucial for maintainers when preparing a plane for takeoff, Clevinger said. They usually have about a two-hour window to certify a plane is airworthy, but a part replacement would likely cancel a flight.
“With the importance of the tanker mission, that’s top priority for us,” Clevinger said.
Maintenance airmen who tend to be drawn to newer aircraft say it’s eye-opening for them to witness what the old KC-135 can do and how important it is to Air Force functions, Clevinger said.
“We are constantly evolving and not allowing the age of this airframe to be an excuse,” Clevinger said.
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