Saturday, January 28, 2023

Launching Massive 10 KC-135 Tankers In A Single Day, US 171st Air Refueling Wing Reports On Of Busiest Days For Flying

On October 25, 2022, the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard dispatched ten KC-135 aircraft in a single day to support several missions all over the country and globally. 

The 171st Air Refueling Wing issued the statement on January 3 via the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS) website of the United States military. The wing also mentioned that it was one of the busiest days for flying at the unit on record. 

The KC-135 Stratotanker offers the primary aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and has played a vital role in this duty for over 60 years.

“The entire maintenance crew was on hand to make this happen,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Brennan, an aircraft maintenance supervisor with the 171st. “All specialists were on standby for each launch to address any maintenance issues that might come up.”

171st KC-135 Take Off
Photo By Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Monk | A KC-135 aircraft takes off from the 171st Air Refueling Wing, an Air National Guard unit near Pittsburgh, Pa., October 25, 2022. The aircraft was supporting Operation Nobel Defender, a long-planned NORAD exercise that validates the command’s capability to defend Canada and the United States from every avenue of approach. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Monk)

Generally, the 171st Air Refueling Wing routinely launches four to six aircraft per day of the flight, according to the statement. An aircraft needs between four and six hours of maintenance before each mission. This is essential to keep the safety and reliability of the 65-year-old KC-135. 

According to Lt. Col. Eric Schillo, the 171st’s Chief of Plans, the wing launched ten aircraft with a part-time crew, maintained 65-year-old aircraft, had a high mission success rate, and unexpectedly managed to refuel a B-2 bomber without prior notice.

The aircraft improves the Air Force’s capacity to carry out its overarching goal of reaching the entire world. Additionally, it supports aerial refueling for aircraft belonging to the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and allies. 

Missions That Were Carried Out In A Single Day

The wing also described the actions these aircraft carried out in support of other missions, such as refueling combat aircraft.

In support of Operation Enduring Sentinel, four crews from those ten missions, operating under the callsign Reach, departed Pittsburgh for Southeast Asia with more than 100 Guardsmen and their gear.

Separately, the crew of Steel 51 promptly air refueled a B-2 Stealth Bomber that was running low on fuel. The crew was returning the tanker from Tinker Air Force Base following routine maintenance when the order for urgent air refueling came in.  

Within minutes, the crew was in the air, preventing the bomber from diverting. Meanwhile, the statement said that the Teddy crew aerially refueled an E-8C aircraft belonging to the 116th Air Control Wing. 

The E-8C aircraft employs the world’s most advanced ground observation and battle management system. Furthermore, the crew with the call sign Gasman was assigned to support Operation Noble Defender. 

Military resources from the US, Canada, and other allies are used in the operations under the banner of the Noble Defender. It’s a North Aerospace Defense Command exercise showing the ability to protect Canada and the United States.

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker - Wikipedia
Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker – Wikipedia

The crew carried out routine training missions with the callsigns Steel 71, 72, and 73. These missions included refueling a C-17 from the 911th Airlift Wing, an EC-130J from the 193rd Special Operations Wing, and another C-17 from the 167th Airlift Wing. 

The wing noted that these operations preserve proficiency for the tanker crew and the aircrew receiving the fuel. Ground crews also prepared a backup aircraft if one launched aircraft had a problem and couldn’t take off.

The tanker fleet has been used more frequently than planned since 2001 due to the expansion of worldwide air operations as part of the war on terror, leading to increased wear and tear on the aircraft and a dramatic increase in maintenance expenses.

Similarly, the KC-135 aircraft has experienced numerous operational and maintenance issues in recent years. The KC-135, an aircraft built on the four-engine Boeing 707 airliner, is the most common tanker in the United States. 

It went into service in the late 1950s, and despite many upgrades, the USAF is still facing operational challenges with this aircraft. The key factor is that the KC-135’s maintenance expenses are getting too expensive. 

The U.S. military is replacing KC-135 aircraft with KC-46 refueling tankers. The KC-46 is a significant improvement over the KC-135 in terms of fuel capacity and payload capacity.

Having said that, an operation of this magnitude occurs as the U.S. and its allied countries take steps to counter China and Russia. 

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