Legacy Stratotanker refuels newest Air Force fighters

61 year-old Stratotanker getting the job done

A Fairchild KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a 388th Fighter Wing F-35A Lighting II during a night mission over the Pacific Northwest October 17, 2017. The F-35A is the U.S. Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter and brings an enhanced capability to survive in advanced threat environments. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Sean Campbell)

61 year-old Stratotanker getting the job done

Team Fairchild aircrew perform a walk-around of a KC-135 Stratotanker before flying an air refueling mission at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, October 17, 2017. Air Mobility Command and all of its assets provide the ability to project power, influence and assist responsively with unrivaled speed and precision to any point on the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Sean Campbell)

61 year-old Stratotanker getting the job done

Capt. Chad Halverstadt, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron pilot, adjusts the power on a KC-135 Stratotanker during an air refueling mission over the Pacific Northwest October 17, 2017. The KC-135 is the U.S. Air Force’s primary air refueling aircraft and has held that title for more than 60 years. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Sean Campbell)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Team Fairchild’s KC-135 Stratotanker was hard at work refueling six of the U.S. Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighters, the F-35A Lightning II, over the Pacific Northwest Oct. 17.

The F-35 brings enhanced capabilities to survive in an advanced threat environment while adding an additional level of lethality to the force. It provides next-generation stealth, enhanced situational awareness and reduced vulnerability for the U.S. and allied nations. But no matter how deadly, the F-35 couldn’t go anywhere or complete any mission without regular fuel-ups from the gas-station-in-the-sky KC-135 Stratotanker.

“It was the crew’s first time refueling not just one, but six of the newest aircraft in the Air Force inventory,” said Capt. Halverstadt, 93rd Air Refueling Squadron pilot. “We were focusing on check rides and getting all [training] requirements completed, but we took a few moments during the flight to remind ourselves we were refueling one of the newest jets. It was definitely exciting.”

KC-135 allow F-35s longer time en route by providing them timely movement and assisting them responsively, delivering and giving them fuel anywhere on the globe to complete their mission.

“KC-135s allow fighters that much more reach. It has a strong history of doing what it takes to get the mission done,” said Capt. Kevin Mulligan, 93rd ARS pilot. “Overall, [in-flight refueling] is key to tactical and strategic operations.”

Considering the KC-135 is more than 60 years old, the maintenance and upgrades performed on the aircraft to modernize and improve operational effectiveness and efficiency enables its capacity to deliver effective warfighter support at the right time and place.

“The latest update, Block 45, has made [the KC-135] similar to most modern airlines by putting the glass display in the middle with all the engine instruments,” Mulligan said. “By having an LCD display, you can do a software update like any other technology. It’s just like downloading your cellphone software; it streamlines the process and makes it quicker.”

“The KC-135 is the backbone to Air Power. We must be an agile force that can go anywhere at a moment's notice, and without our KC-135 fleet, our ability to accomplish our mission is impossible,” said Lt. Col. Bart Wilbanks, 466th Fighter Squadron F-35 assistant director of operations. “Current operations worldwide are extremely dependent on the KC-135 for almost all the Air Forces core competencies. The F-35 is amazing machine, but without the KC-135 we would be extremely limited to what it could accomplish on a given mission.”

Though flying two aircraft or jets in close proximity can be dangerous, the KC-135 has the necessary tools to safely meet operational requirements.

“It takes a lot of coordination between the boom operators and the pilots to make the mission as safe as possible,” Mulligan said. “The standardized procedures, communication and terminology make it as safe as it can be flying and delivering fuel to other aircraft and fighter jets.”

As the 93rd ARS’ motto goes, “Nobody can get any work done without tanker gas.” The KC-135 provides the core aerial refueling capability for the U.S. Air Force and has excelled in this role for six decades.

“Enabling other airframes to get the mission done is our biggest service. We focus a lot on fighters and being up-close with them at the front of the fight,” Mulligan added. “[The KC-135’s] unique capabilities allow us to accomplish our primary mission of global reach and power projection.”