Manas AFB, Kyrgyzstan (AFNS) Sep 11, 2007
As the Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary later this month, the first all jet tanker-transport that has been the backbone for combat operations in Afghanistan isn't far behind. The KC-135 Stratotanker celebrated its birthday Aug. 31. It was 1956 -- 51 years ago -- when the Boeing aircraft made its maiden flight.
"Anyone who has been watching the (Manas Air Base) flightline can tell you, we are flying them hard," said Lt. Col. Steve Hart, the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron commander.
The KC-135 is still going strong with the help of some modifications and refurbishments. The upgrade to the R-model involved swapping out the original J-57 turbo jet engine for the CFM-56 turbo fan engine. The R-model conversion process started in 1984 and took about 20 years to complete.
"It was major leap in power from the old engines, where water was injected into the engines on takeoff to help us get airborne with heavy fuel loads," Colonel Hart said.
Today there are less than 500 of the original 729 KC-135s built between 1955 and 1964, but the demand for the aircraft is as high as ever.
Despite the long hours logged by the aircraft in some pretty tough environments, the plane has held up remarkably well.
For Colonel Hart, the longevity of the airplane is a tribute to the design and the maintainers who keep it flying.
"The maintenance professionals truly make the mission happen," he said. "I simply position the switch to 'On' and take their aircraft to the fight. You can't hide on the flightline. You are either the hero or the goat."
The Manas AB maintenance members have definitely been heroes.
"This wing has shattered records throughout this rotation. Sorties, offload, you name the metric we've crushed it," Colonel Hart said.
Every day, 24 hours a day, KC-135s from Manas AB are in the sky over Afghanistan, off-loading fuel to aircraft that are providing critical combat air support to coalition ground forces.
It is this 51-year-old aircraft that gives the Air Force its real capability, Colonel Hart said.
"I may be a bit biased, but while the combat power produced from the combined effects all the different weapon systems is utterly amazing, what sets us apart from every other air force in the world is our ability to air refuel," Colonel Hart said. "Air refueling is the critical component that allows Air Force to take the fight to the enemy on a global scale.
"Yes, it is funny at air shows when children ask us where we put our bombs and where do our guns come out of, but you know what? When the fuel gauge is running low and there are troops on the ground needing support, the first radio transmission from that fighter pilot after he has dropped his weapon is 'Is my tanker up there?'" he said.
And the answer is always, yes that they are holding just a few minutes away, and will be for many more years to come.
"The joke that is not lost on many of us who fly the KC-135 is that the last KC-135 pilot probably hasn't even been born yet," Colonel Hart said.
-- Fuel capacity for a KC-135 31,275 gallons -- enough for a car to drive 938,250 miles.
-- The average car can operate for more than a year on the amount of fuel transferred through the boom in a single minute.
-- The total fuel carried on a KC-135 would last the average driver 48 years.
-- The electrical power generated by one aircraft would power 35 homes.
-- To lubricate its four engines, the aircraft carries 64 gallons of oil, enough for 50 cars.
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