AHF↑Inside: Ridin’ the Stratotanker

“First flight Boeing KC-46 delayed until summer,” aviation news headlines read recently. Over Germany, it’s of no concern to the three crew members of a 55 year old Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker, belonging to the 174th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Iowa Air National Guard. Why? Because theirs is such a nice aircraft to fly, thanks especially to the four CFM-56 turbofan engines that sort of define the ‘R’ version of the KC-135. “These engines make it climb like a rocket,” says Major Joe Bousqet. “On the other hand, it’s a stable aircraft, which is perfect for our task: refuelling other aircraft.” We’ll have to wait until Summer to know if the KC-46 is capable of doing the same.

‘Climb like a rocket.’ The words ring in our ears as we roll down runway 27 at Geilenkirchen Airbase at five in the afternoon, with 105,000 pounds of jet fuel in our tanks. And indeed as soon as the KC-135 – normally based at Colonel Bud Day Field, Sioux City – rotates, Geilenkirchen vanishes beneath us at an impressive rate. A long left turn brings us to a north easterly heading towards Northern Germany, where we will fly a race track pattern for several hours.

Airheadsfly.com's mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Airheadsfly.com’s mode of transportation on 18 March 2015. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The crew gets to work prior to take off. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

It’s business as usual for Bousqet and his crew. They have been at Geilenkirchen for a week now and will remain there for another, supporting the local AWACS aircraft. They know their KC-135 is in high demand, not only here over Germany, but also in current operations anywhere. “Yeah, we get around,” says Bousqet, who in civilian life flies McDonnell Douglas MD-80 airliners in the US. But now, he’s on the lookout for our customer, an E-3 AWACS that’s supposed to fly somewhere in front of us.

Experience also our feature AHF↑Inside: NATO’s AWACS Nest

In the back, boom operator Staff Sgt. Mike Perez has taken his position at the boom operator’s station. “Most of this stuff is as old as the airplane itself, but it works,” he says while demonstrating the two joysticks that operate the boom that transfers the fuel to the customer aircraft, which, incidentally, glides into view beneath us, still 1,000 feet lower. The grey-white fuselage of the NATO AWACS is as easily recognizable as the large black radome over it. After we make radio contact, the E-3A approaches cautiously until only the cockpit and front section fills the glass screen that provides our boom operator which such a unique view of the world. It’s a great scene, especially with the setting sun later on.

With a calm voice, Perez guides the E-3’s pilot to where he should be, and finally moves the fuel nozzle at the end of the refuelling boom to where that should be: in the E-3’s fuel receptacle on top of the forward fuselage.

“Contact,” Perez tells the E-3 pilot. The fuel begins to flow and it marks the first of 17 more hook ups like this, although on most occasions there’s no fuel transferred. The E-3 pilots just practice staying in position ‘on the boom’, guided by Perez’s reassuring voice.

Meanwhile in the KC-135R’s cockpit, the two pilots monitor their instruments and the race track pattern on their screens. The Stratotanker’s office has been upgraded countless times, and now features partly ‘glass’ instruments. “That’s great to work with, but there’s still plenty of dials and gauges,” says co-pilot Lt. Caleb Barber, pointing to the dials in the middle of the console that show what the four CFM-56’s are up to. “Those haven’t changed much.”

Nevertheless, the KC-135 has seen many variants over the years. Boeing built no less than 732 KC-135s in Renton in Washington; the very first KC-135 first took flight on 31 August 1956. A lot of them have been retired already, but the with 414 Stratotankers still in service the most current KC-135Rs will be the mainstay of the US Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s tanker capability for years to come, until it’s successor – the KC-46A – is mission ready in numbers.

To be truthful, the KC-46 did fly late 2014, but without any air-refuelling equipment. Boeing is now installing it in the aircraft, and it won’t look and work like anything at all aboard the KC-135. “It gets a bit uncomfortable, lying here for hours at a time,” says Perez in the back of the KC-135 over Germany.

The boom operator has just chalked up the 16th hook up for that night. Evening has fallen and the E-3 is only faintly visible beneath us, just as we overfly the city of Bremershaven along the German coast. The receptacle is clearly lit however and in darkness, two more hook ups take place. In the cockpit, Bousqet and Barber prepare for the return to Geilenkirchen.

An E-3 in 'pre-contact' position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
An E-3 in ‘pre-contact’ position. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No setting sun yet for the KC-135. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Meanwhile in the States, preparations for the KC-46’s first fully equipped flight are being made, but delays in the program and all the turmoil that got the Boeing aircraft finally chosen over the Airbus KC-30 have given the KC-46 a bad start. The 2017 deadline of entry-into-service will quickly not be met. Nevertheless, the US intends to buy a total of 179 KC-46s, named Pegasus.

Back in European skies it’s dark with a bit of low cloud as our KC-135R is heading home, lined up for the Runway 27 at ILS approach to Geilenkirchen. At 400 feet, the Stratotanker breaks out of the clouds and the runway lights show themselves. As the wheels touch down there’s 32,000 pounds of fuel remaining. We burned 28,000 pounds of fuel ourselves and we gave 45,000 pounds away to a happy customer. It’s a scenario repeated countless times by the Stratotanker, who’s legendary name will keep ringing in the ears of KC-46 Pegasus crews for a long time to come.

© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): The KC-135R cockpit, with night falling outside. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

(Image © Dennis Spronk)
The legendary shape of the legendary Stratotanker. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
Welcome aboard! (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
The business end. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
After landing, the KC-135 is cared for by the ground crew. (Image © Dennis Spronk)