Old and reliable KC-135 refuels new to the force KC-46

  • Published
  • By Peter Borys
  • 914th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

One of the oldest refueling tanker aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory, the KC-135R Stratotanker, flown by the 914th Air Refueling Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y. recently refueled the newest refueling aircraft model, the KC-46A Pegasus flown by the 157th ARW, Pease ANGB, N.H. With the world focusing on severe health and economic impacts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic little attention is focused these days on the daily missions that these units and the military in general must perform in protecting this nation from any adversaries that could take advantage of our current situation.

The KC-135 was the U.S. Air Force's first jet-powered refueling tanker and replaced the KC-97L Stratofreighter. The KC-135 provides the core aerial refueling capability for the USAF and has excelled in this role for more than 50 years. Entering service with the Air Force in 1957, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard fly more than half of these aircraft.

Captain Brian Haun, 328th Air Refueling Squadron instructor pilot, has had over two and a half years flying the KC-135 with 1,100 hours as a pilot, aircraft commander on the C-130H. For this mission Haun's role was in the co-pilot seat as he compared the two missions.

“Each mission set presents its own opportunities," said Haun. "The C-130 mission was to be on time over target and deliver goods or personnel. The KC-135 job is to be on time with fuel to aid in the receiver mission. The tactical mindset of the C-130 was a great segue into the learning how to execute the KC-135 mission."

This flight mission was Master Sgt. Maurice Shivers first time refueling a KC-46. A boom operator with the 328th Air Refueling Squadron he brings a lot of flying experience to his current position, fifteen years and 2500 hours most of it as a loadmaster on a C-130 with three years on the current airframe.

“The most unique thing about flying the KC-135 is the air refueling part and how much faster and further we can fly," said Shivers. "One of the most challenging parts is backing up the pilots throughout the mission. The boom operator acts as an additional set of eyes to maintain speed and altitude, during critical phases of the flight."

Piloting the aircraft for his final flight before retirement was 914th ARW commander, Col. Mark Larson. Over 27 years of military service flying various aircraft including the KC-135 have given him many memories. Some moments stayed with him such as the first Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm flying the KC-135.

“I think of the opening night of the Gulf War," said Larson. "I was number two of an eight ship of airplanes that were going down and taking the initial stealth fighters into the Bagdad area. That was an amazing experience. I think about flying missions overhead in Afghanistan when they did their first elections. We were refueling B-1 bombers over the country while they were administering elections on the ground." According to Larson, one unusual mission involved flying five dolphins to Hawaii in special tanks inside a C-17 that the U.S. Navy used to seek out sea mines.

Col. Larson has mixed emotions about retiring, but is excited to get back out west on the family ranch and spend more time with family and grandkids. He stressed he’ll miss flying.

Normally, this aircraft has a crew of three, but this mission incorporated continuation training for other crew members including Col. Jeromie Sheldon, pilot and 914th Operations Group Commander and two more boom operators: Staff Sgt. Charles Meagher, 328th Air Refueling Squadron and Chief Master Sgt. Michael Zimmerman, 914th Operations Group.

Chief Zimmerman also marked this as his final flight before retiring. Almost 30 years flying the C-130 as a loadmaster and three years flying the KC-135 mission. He was asked about transitioning to the tanker.

“It’s a great mission, great aircraft. It’s been a privilege for me to be on two of the greatest aircraft ever built for the Air Force," said Zimmerman. "Both phenomenal in their mission, both workhorses, both going well beyond what anyone ever anticipated they would.”

He added, “I spent 30 years of telling the pilots that the plane is getting too close and come to this mission to tell pilots to come in a little closer so I can put the boom into the receptacle is really different.” Immediate plans for retirement is to rest, get a few things done around the house, gardening, bike riding, fishing and spending time with the family.

This mission was a last minute change due to the original receivers cancelling for bad weather. The 157th ARW was able to quickly commit the KC-46 to a refueling mission one and a half hours prior to conducting the mission.

The KC-46A is the first phase in recapitalizing the Air Force’s aging fleet. With greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135. Niagara is optimistic that they may receive the new KC-46 mission in the future.