Despite age, tanker aircraft ‘invaluable' to America's military mission, commander says

- America’s newest and most advanced fighter takes to the skies every day, but the F-22 Raptor can’t get very far without some of the oldest planes in the Air Force.  This week, that juxtaposition played out 26,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico.

A flight of six cutting-edge Raptors thirstily gulped down fuel from a 54-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker during an all-Sunshine State training mission.  The sleek, aggressive-looking F-22s from Tyndall Air Force Base paused during their mock dogfights to take turns pulling up behind the bulbous KC-135, each taking only a few minutes to load up with 6,000 pounds of fuel before peeling away into the August haze.

The tanker crew, a mix of active duty and reservists, returned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to prepare for their next flight, which could easily take them much farther than the Florida Panhandle.  The Air Force calls upon the fleet to support a wide range of missions.

“They like to call it a tanker thirst, and it’s an insatiable thirst right now,” explained Col. April Vogel, MacDill’s base commander.  “We have folks in the Middle East. We support some Guam deployments.  And then we do flights – deployed or just tasked – all around the world.”

The unpredictable, dynamic nature of their mission is one thing that appeals to crewmembers like Tech Sgt. James Kyper.  From his spot in the back of the KC-135, he has seen all sorts of aircraft pull up to his refueling boom.  But he said the F-22s are among his favorite.

“It’s a stealth fighter. It’s an awesome looking jet when it comes up,” he explained as the last of the Raptors finished refueling.  “You can just tell that it’s sleek and fast and that it kicks butt.”

Monday’s training flight came just hours before President Donald Trump recommitted the U.S. military to the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, while potential escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula also keeps military planners busy.

Vogel said the developments wouldn’t really change anything for the 6th Air Mobility Wing or its partner 927th Air Refueling Wing.

“Yes, it’s on our mind,” she acknowledged.  “But the thing that’s a blessing about the tanker mission is that they do that mission all the time.  And wherever they’re operating, it’s very similar.  So they just need to know what they need to do and where they need to be and these guys will do it.”

Often, that means flying in aircraft that are as old, or even older, than their parents.  The KC-135 is based on the Boeing 707 passenger airliner – the “best the 1960s had to offer,” one young crewmember joked Monday – though they have seen numerous upgrades through the decades.

MacDill Air Force Base is expecting eight more of the KC-135s to arrive this fall as other refueling wings around the Air Force start upgrading to newer planes, bringing the total number of Stratotankers in Tampa to 24. 

Eventually, those newer aircraft may wind up at MacDill as well.  But in the meantime, Vogel said the extra tankers – regardless of their age – make the base and the team “invaluable” to the military.

“I may be a little bit biased, but there’s only so far that those bombers and those fighter aircraft can go without a tanker.  That airplane that you see out there – that 60-year-old airplane – is enabling our ability to fight the war around the world,” she added.  “In other for us to provide power projection around the world, we need those tankers to provide fuel for those aircraft.”

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