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KC-135 wings talk progress, airpower

by Airman Patrice Clarke
Public Affairs

Chances are, when you have a car that looks like a newly-restored '57 Chevy, stuffed with the technology of a 2004 Lexus, with the capabilities of an ambulance, delivery truck, gas station and commercial airliner, you have a classic car worth discussing.

Or you have a vision for the KC-135R Stratotanker well into the 21st century.

Officials from Grand Forks Air Force Base, Fairchild AFB, Wash., McConnell AFB, Kan., and MacDill AFB, Fla., gathered at Tinker AFB, Okla., in January to tour depot maintenance facilities and to talk about the KC-135's future. They compared ideas on how to improve the KC-135 to meet its multiple mission requirements. Their goal, said the KC-135 commanders, is to ensure the safe and comfortable operation of the KC-135 into the future.

"We're already in the time period where we're experiencing difficulty operating the airplane. But we're able to keep it flying,'' said Brig. Gen. (Sel.) Tanker Snyder, 6th Air Mobility Wing commander. ``It could be tomorrow when something grounds a proportion of the fleet. Or it may not happen for some time.''

General Snyder and the other KC-135 wing commanders were following up on Brigadier General Loren Reno's suggestion at the Senior Leaders Maintenance Course that wing customers visit their respective Air Force Materiel Command depots. The leaders found both the depot and Air Force logistics system supporting the KC-135 fleet have changed to take advantage of new technologies. The Air Force is trying to work faster, smarter and more efficiently to overcome the challenges of an aging weapon system.

"This aircraft is a classic design, like a '57 Chevy,'' General Snyder says. ``You can keep maintaining it and using it, but it gets more difficult and expensive to maintain. There are no modern conveniences or safety enhancements.'' The meeting of tanker minds was really about progress and the future, said officials. Subjects such as the depot maintenance process and how to better maintain a tanker between depot stops were points of interest, but most importantly, it was another chance to build on the future for improving one of the Air Force's most heavily-tasked planes.

The event provided a forum to gather best practices, so that the standards could be raised even higher. Even though the KC-135 has been the main air refueling aircraft for more than four decades, it has also picked up other missions along the way, such as airlift and aeromedical evacuation. The KC-135 fleet is the oldest flying in the Air Force today, and no longer serves as just a flying gas station. Over the past decade, it has evolved into an aircraft that refuels and carries passengers, cargo, patients and essentially, whatever is required to fight the war on terrorism.

"This is a proud workhorse. It's maintained well. But there's no getting around the age of this aircraft and the challenges we are facing to keep it flying,'' said General Snyder.

The goal of standardizing best practices is to restore more luster in the "57 Chevy" tanker fleet to make sure each jet will remain a classic "driver" until retirement. Keeping this fleet in superb condition is vital to national security, since their capability is one of the main reasons America is a world superpower and able to project forces anywhere in the world within 36 hours.

"Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom proved that we need the air bridge. It gives us global reach as a nation," said General Snyder. "If the tanker fleet was to be grounded, aerial combat operations would be shut down."

 

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