Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and Its Variants

A KC-135 Stratotanker sits on the flightline at Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan.
Ground crews will have to de-ice the tanker before it can take off on a refueling mission.

(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Paul Clifford)
So over at my buddy Shaun's place, Any Mouse hinted that he'd like to see some KC-135 love in these spaces. As always, you ask, we provide, as best we can.

The KC-135, as many of you probably know, is based on the Boeing Model 367-80. It went on to become the very successful Boeing 707 as well. I had always thought that the 707 came first, here's what Boeing has to say about that:
Seventy-two-year-old William Boeing came back to visit his former company for the May 14, 1954, rollout of the Model 367-80 at the Renton, Wash., plant. His wife, Bertha, christened the yellow and brown airplane with real champagne, and the Renton High School band played the Air Force theme. It was the prototype for the 707 passenger jet and the KC-135 jet tanker and would be the first member of the “700” family of commercial and military jets.

The Boeing Company had invested $16 million (two-thirds of the company’s net profits from the post-war years) to build this prototype for a long-range jet aircraft. It was developed in secrecy and designated Model 367-80 to disguise it as merely an improved version of the C-97 Stratofreighter. It was subsequently nicknamed the “Dash 80,” had jet engines and swept wings, and was very different from the straight-wing, propeller-powered Stratofreighter. When the Dash 80 was almost finished, the company gambled again — by tooling and gearing up for a production aircraft, although neither the Air Force, nor any airline, had placed a single order.

Because the prototype was constructed to sell first as a military-tanker transport, it had few windows and no seats, but had two large cargo doors. A week after its first flight, the Air Force ordered 29 tanker versions, the KC-135. The commercial version, the 707, however, faced tough competition from the Douglas DC-8. Boeing salespeople directed their efforts to Pan American World Airways, Trans World Airlines and large European airlines. On Oct. 14, Pan Am ordered 20 707s. At the same time, Pan Am ordered 25 DC-8s. The race was on.

In 1972, the Dash 80 became part of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum collection. In August 2003, it flew to its new home on permanent display at the museum’s new companion facility, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport. (Source)
Now there was something about that aircraft that rang a bell or two in the old brain housing group. First of all, I've been to Udvar-Hazy (safe to say, one of my favorite places on the planet) so I must have seen old 367-80, digging through the images I captured the day Murphy and I visited, sure enough, there she was.






She is there, in a number of my photos, not the center of my attention at the time, much to my regret because this is a very famous aircraft. Ever heard of a fellow named Tex Johnston?



Yup, same aircraft. I had absolutely no clue that I was standing that close to a legendary aircraft. No clue that she was perhaps more famous than the other birds around her. Well, now I know better, and next time I get to visit Udvar-Hazy, I'll give the old girl the attention she deserves. After all she's the mother of the KC-135 tankers still in service today.

The Air Force has been flying the -135 since 1956, Your Humble Scribe was only three years old when the first -135 rolled out of the factory.
The KC-135 was the first offspring of the Dash 80. It was designed specifically for aerial refueling and for 15 years was the only tanker used by the Strategic Air Command (SAC). More than 600 of the 732 tankers built were still in service in the mid-1990s.

The KC-135 replaced the propeller-powered KC-97 tankers, which could no longer keep up with the jet fighters and bombers. In 1956, when the first KC-135 — nicknamed "The City of Renton" — rolled out of the plant, it shared the Renton tarmac with the last KC-97, providing a vivid picture of The Boeing Company's complete conversion to jet power.

During nine years of the Vietnam conflict, KC-135s made 813,000 aerial refuelings of combat aircraft. During the Persian Gulf War, the tankers made 18,700 hookups and transferred 278 million pounds (126 million kilograms) of fuel.

A total of 820 C/KC-135s were built in Renton, Wash., through 1966: 732 as aerial tankers and 88 modified for special purposes, including cargo carriers, reconnaissance airplanes, Strategic Air Command airborne command posts and transports for high-ranking government officials.

Boeing modifications that extended service capabilities of the KC-135s included re-skinning the wings with an improved aluminum alloy and installing new, more powerful and fuel-efficient engines. Two re-engined KC-135Rs could do the work of three KC-135As.

On Feb.24, 2011, Boeing announced that it had received a contract from the U.S. Air Force to build the next-generation aerial refueling tanker aircraft, the KC-46, based on the Boeing 767 commercial airplane, to replace 179 of the service’s 400 KC-135 tankers. (Source)
I have never had the opportunity to fly on any of the -135 family, though both daughters did when they were in AF JROTC back in high school. They had the opportunity to go up on an air refueling mission with the Air National Guard when they had a tanker deployed to Geilenkirchen to support our E-3A NATO AWACS birds during the unpleasantness down in the former Yugoslavia. (The E-3A was built on a -707 airframe, so she's a sister to the -135) Was the old man jealous?

Why yes, yes I was!

(Why did the daughters join the Navy after having gone AF JROTC? They both have corrected vision, who runs the Air Force? Pilots. Could they be pilots? No. I advised them to go Navy. Sorry Air Force.)

As one might expect, the Air Force's website has some good data on the KC-135.



Here's the bird I supported for seven plus years in Germany. We had 18 of these at one time but had one go down on take off while deployed to Greece. Only one crewman was injured, the flight engineer, but all the crew survived. The bird was a write off, she broke in two, as can be seen in the following photo. I knew the flight engineer, his wife and The Missus Herself are good friends. A Canadian family, great folks. He recovered from his injuries, thank the Lord.


Note the "LX-N" registration on the tail. All of the NATO birds are registered in Luxembourg. (Source)

Boeing E-3 Sentry, registration LX-N90457, after overrunning the runway at Prevesa AB in Greece. (Source)
Here's the American, British, and French versions of the E-3 -

USAF E-3 Sentry (Source)
RAF E-3D Sentry (Source)
Armée de l'Air E-3F (Source)
Then there was the Rivet Joint variant. I saw these a lot while stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska. Always reminded me of a chipmunk. A big, loud, flying chipmunk!

An RC-135 Rivet Joint from the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off for a mission, Aug. 26, 2008. The 763 ERS supports theater and national-level consumers with near real-time on-scene intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination. (Source)
There was also the EC-135 Looking Glass, the flying command post of the Strategic Air Command, saw that bird a lot while at Offutt as well.

The EC-135C Looking Glass lands after its final operational flight. (Source)
Here are the final scenes from the 1990 HBO film Dawn's Early Light with James Earl Jones as the Air Force general onboard the Looking Glass coming to a hard, but necessary, decision. (A great actor there, loved that film.) A number of Boeing aircraft here, the B-52, the F/A-18 Hornet, the E-4 National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP, or "Kneecap") and of course, the Looking Glass.



Yup, the Boeing 707, the KC-135, a fine aircraft. I doubt we'll see such a versatile airframe again in our lifetimes. A fine bird with an epic history. The next photo seems fitting as the KC-135 comes to the end of its long, and storied career.

04/20/06 - KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft from the 40th Air Expeditionary Group sit on the ramp in the evening ready to support a B-52 Stratofortress mission over the skies of Afghanistan April 20, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer)
Hope that met your expectations Any Mouse.






32 comments:

  1. I still love watching them fly over the humble abode out of the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Pittsburgh. The only cooler ones to me are the C-130 Hercules from the 911th Airlift Wing that come over low and slow in groups of three. I kind of miss the days when I was a little tyke and they were still using the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar. The planes weren't the best things, tough. That would be when the missiles were raised and lowered every day at the Nike Site. You could watch them from my school room window. I was a big fan of sci fi movies and always imagined that they were getting ready to shoot down flying saucers............................


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    1. We saw a few 119s back in tbe day. Cool looking, but like you said...

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  2. How many different "Strato-" aircraft are there? I can think of a few off the top of my head - Stratofortress, Stratotanker, Stratocruiser/Stratofreighter - so Boeing had a definite naming theme there for a while.

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    1. When Boeing finds a tail they like, they stick with it. B-17 and B-29, same shape tail. 135, B-52, 747 tails look similar in shape as well.

      If it works...

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    2. There was a Stratoliner, too. Although I'm not sure some of the so-named birds were capable of making it to the actual-factual stratosphere.

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    3. No more misleading than the C-141 Starlifter. Don't think it actually lifted any actual stellar matter.

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    4. Carl Sagan popularized the notion that pretty much eveything heavier than hydrogen was inside a star at some point. So every aircraft is effectively made of stellar matter, and lifts stars. Double true for Hollywood private jets?

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    5. Hhmm, got me on a technicality.

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  3. Excellent tribute to a classic workhorse. Loved the pic's and any day that starts with
    pics of classic aircraft will be a good day. Thanks for another outstanding blog!!!

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  4. The only time you can have too much gas in a fighter.....is when you're on fire!

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    1. Oh yeah, while writing this one I remember your stories of being "towed" across the Pacific by a tanker.

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    2. I guess you could say, I've always looked up to a 135!

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  5. I've flown on KC-135s, including one that did a refueling of a B-1. Of the C-119, I have been aboard for five take-offs, but no landings.

    Paul L. Quandt

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    1. Jumped out of airplanes you did?

      I won't say anything about them being "perfectly good."

      :)

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    2. I live under a frequently used approach to KBFI so I've been seeing KC-46 out for flight testing on a regular basis over the last few years. Sometimes they are trailed by a FA-18.

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    3. "Jumped out of airplanes you did?

      I won't say anything about them being "perfectly good."

      To the first, yes, but only my school jumps. To the second, later I became a C-141 crew chief, so no, there are no perfectly good aircraft. Although, I thumbed through the log book of an aircraft that comes pretty darn close, NASA's C141A flying observatory. I'd love to see the a/c which fly POTUS log books.

      Paul

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    4. I would bet that the maintenance on POTUS's aircraft is meticulous.

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  6. It was great to finally find out that J.E.J. made general. Je got off to a rough start as a second louie in B-52's and I was never sure how that worked out for him.

    Great and fun post😆

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    1. Well, serving with Major Kong did hurt his career.

      😂

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  7. The Stratoliner was capable of going pretty high, though I'm not sure about stratosphere, likely 25,000 or so. There are 2 of these left though one is a houseboat in Florida. The other is at Udvar-Hazy across the aisle and down from Dash 80. There were 10 built and all were taken up for military transportation for WW II. The wings and tail are a B-17 (D or E version, I think) and the fuselage is double riveted to keep the pressurization tight. The $16M invested is the number I have heard, but I also have heard that the money, or most of it, would have gone to Uncle Sugar anyway as excess profits tax.

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  8. Tex Johnson? IIRC he was a member and Ace in Claire Chennaults (another good 'ole South Louisiana boy) WW II Flying Tigers (The AVG-American Volunteer Group) I first came across the name when reading the book "God is My Co-Pilot" by Col Robert S. Scott (who flew with Tex) when I was in grade school in the 50s.

    C-119s? They made a helluva gunship in Vietnam (CS: "SHADOW") to go along with the C-47s ("SPOOKY") and C-130s (SPECTRE). In Korea it was about the only in-theater
    heavy-lift ac we had..

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    1. Sorry, just checked with Wiki, wrong Tex....brain cells slowly dissipating..

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    2. I had no idea that we used the -119 as a gunship.

      Hhmm, gunships, might be a post there. Thanks for the idea Virgil.

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    3. Were you thinking of Tex Hill? He flew with Chennault in the AVG.

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  9. I know a few Navy guys that fly this bird- the TACAMO version though.

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    1. Man! I forgot the E-6 Mercury, or TACAMO version.

      Probably because I've never actually seen one, though I know they exist.

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  10. Expectations met and then some, thanks for taking my not so subtle hint the other day. I was disappointed when I was assigned to them in tech school but that changed quickly. The view out the boom pod was something else.

    The Navy stationed the E-6 Mercury at Tinker AFB. The story goes that an industrious young airmen welcomed them to the base one night by painting the anchor by their hanger pink. He then bragged about it to his buddies at chow the next morning. Unfortunately for our hero, the SPs eating in the booth next to them heard the whole thing. They finished their coffee, everyone had a nice laugh, and then arrested him.

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    1. I'll bet that view was something!

      Ah, the blue beanies, just can't take a joke. (Probably a good thing sometimes!)

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