More than 50 years after its first flight, the KC-135 tanker is the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force, a flying gas station that loiters over the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan every day. And it will keep flying for at least 30 more years — there isn't even a contract for a replacement.
The plane entered service in 1957, when President Eisenhower was just starting his second term. With the Cold War heating up, armed B-52 bombers idled on runways, ready at a moment's notice to fly over the North Pole to strike the Soviet Union.
But the B-52, an eight-engine gas guzzler, couldn't carry enough fuel for a round-trip mission.
Enter the KC-135 Stratotanker, a jet-age filling station in the sky. The B-52 is still flying missions — and so is the Stratotanker, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It refuels bombers, fighters, cargo planes — even other tankers.
Flying A Piece Of History
One pilot who recently flew out of McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita was Capt. Eduardo Buenviaje. At 29, Buenviaje is a good 18 years younger than the KC-135 he flies.
The plane "smells a little funny," Buenviaje said. "It was built before ergonomics, so things are in a little weird position sometimes. But like any airplane you fly, especially one so reliable, you learn to love it."
"It's conventional wiring, conventional controls still," Buenviaje said.
Noting the plane's pulleys and wires, he said, "You turn the thing, and it takes a while to go — or you just need to add a little bit of muscle."
Some parts have been updated on the plane — new engines, new radios, new navigation. But there's still a hole in the cockpit, for the sextant that used to be there.
But one system hasn't changed — the fueling boom.
Lying in the very tail of the plane, Senior Airman Parker McElroy is face down. His chin rests on a padded bar. His right hand grasps a joystick. He's staring downward at a long, thin white boom. It moves gently in the rushing air.
"When we're preparing for contact, it sits at 10 feet, you want it to be at 30 degrees, about centered," McElroy says. "Then as you've got how many feet left or right, with this gauge, tells us where we're at.
McElroy flies the boom by manipulating two small black wings attached to it.
He says the fueling boom's controls are essentially the same as when it was first introduced.
If It's Not Broken ...
The KC-135 is basically the same plane as the ultimate jet-age icon, the Boeing 707. With clean, classic lines, it's modernism on the wing.
But you can tell it was built in a different age.
There are ashtrays in the plane — yes, a plane that carries more than 31,000 gallons of jet fuel still has its ashtrays. Of course, no smoking is allowed anymore, even in the bathrooms.
Another KC-135 drifts up from behind, part of a practice drill on refueling another tanker.
McElroy gently guides the pilot of the other plane; it's a delicate dance, as two four-engine aircraft mate at hundreds of miles an hour at 21,000 feet.
The boom flies slowly as it reaches for its goal: a seemingly impossibly tiny hole in the roof of the other aircraft. Once connected, the fuel is pumped out of tanks in the plane's belly and wings, until a breakaway alarm erupts.
The tight tolerances of the boom's range of motion have been broken.
The planes fall away from each other with stomach-lurching speed. A shutoff valve cuts the flow of fuel. The rear plane plummets. In seconds, the two craft are separated by thousands of feet.
Strong Demand For A Tanker
Outside of Oklahoma City is Tinker Air Force Base, which contains a building seven-tenths of a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. Inside, lined up neatly in a row, are a dozen or so KC-135s in various states of disassembly. They've been stripped down to their shining aluminum skin.
There are heavily laden tables with struts and fasteners, huge pieces of metal that really look as though they shouldn't be taken off of airplanes.
Steve Stoner oversees all the maintenance on KC-135s. Every single plane in the inventory has to come here every five years, where technicians check everything: the skin of the aircraft, every flight surface, every nut, bolt and screw. They're thorough. They have to be.
In the 1980s, KC-135s began to blow up in mid-flight. No one knew why. Officials had to ground the whole fleet. The disasters were traced to a pump in one of the fuel tanks.
But Stoner, like all the engineers here, is supremely confident in their ability to keep the KC-135 flying — no matter what.
"Are there things out there that we don't know?" he asked. "Sure there is. I don't think we'll find anything that will personally ground the fleet. There's nothing we can't fix. If it's bad we can fix it."
Asked it he could continue to do so for the next 30 years, Stoner answered, "Yes, sir."
A Clear Horizon Ahead
The Air Force knows it needs a new plane. But no change is expected soon: At least two deals to build replacement tankers have fallen through. The reason there isn't a contract to replace the plane is both simple and complicated.
It's simple, because there's $35 billion at stake. But it's also complicated — the competing companies really want that money.
A Boeing plan a few years back was tossed out over corruption charges. Then a new contract was awarded to a joint venture between Northrop Grumman and the Europe-based EADS this year; the company has designated the Airbus 330 as the basis for its tanker. But that contract was thrown out over fairness charges from Boeing.
The joke going around the Air Force is that the mother of the last KC-135 pilot hasn't been born yet. The delay is just fine with McElroy.
"Eventually, it will get to the point where it's all automated, like planes and stuff," McElroy said. "But, I hope I'm not around in that day, because I like my job. But we'll see."
For the foreseeable future, anyway, his job seems safe.