Maintenance key to veteran aircraft 60 years’ service

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th ARW
It was a case of art imitating life during the 1950s when the American automobile industry, fascinated with the smooth lines and curves found in aviation, mimicked them with each new design. Cars were faster than ever before and items borrowed from aviation like wrap around windows, wings, turbines and even afterburner tail lights were added to cars in the fifties solely for decoration.

Post-World War era advances in aviation also had planes in the Air Force going much faster. The necessity of keeping up with jet powered aircraft like the B-52 Stratofortress fueled the need for a newer mid-air refueling aircraft.

By the mid-1950s, near the height of the aviation inspired auto design renaissance, the new jet powered KC-135 Stratotanker was first introduced as a replacement for the Air Force's aging propeller powered KC-97 refueling aircraft.

Unlike the ever-changing auto designs of the era, during the ten year production run of the Stratotanker, it didn't changed in appearance at all from when it first debuted in 1956.

Today, the flawless matt grey exterior and polished interior make it difficult to tell that the KC-135 turned 60 this year.

"It's a proven airframe and it hinges on maintenance, from training at the local level to the all the work that's done at the depot level," said Iowa National Guard Lt. Col. Kurt Kindschuh, 185th Air Refueling Wing, Maintenance Group Commander in Sioux City, Iowa.

Regular maintenance, along with systematic upgrades have kept the aircraft in continuous service as the primary midair refueling aircraft for the United States Air force for the past six decades.

According to Kindschuh the KC-135 didn't initially accumulate a lot of flight hours during the early part of the cold war when it was first introduced.
"For years it didn't fly a lot. They did some flying for currency but for the most part it sat on alert," said Kindschuh.

When the KC-135 was transferred to Air Mobility Command in the early 1990's it became the principle way for the U.S. Air Force to project broad power on a global scale.

For units like the 185th ARW the KC-135 continues to refuel long range bombers, but it is also the preferred way to quickly move large transport aircraft and fighter aircraft around the world.

According to Master Sgt. Brad Thorpe, 185th ARW Flight Line Supervisor, significant modifications have helped prolong the life of the KC-135, like newer engines, re-skinning and avionics upgrades as part of regular depot maintenance.

"The maintenance schedule requires that we have calendar inspections and flight hour inspections based on how long it flies," said Thorpe. "Maintenance is tracked on every aircraft through the whole fleet, so if they see something that is trending they can concentrate on that and fix that specific area so it's brand new."

Much like preserving a classic car the KC-135 has its issues, but according to Thorpe, it is a well-designed aircraft. Thorpe believes that good construction combined with rigorous maintenance schedules ensure the aircraft can continue to do its job for years to come.

Thorpe added that the dedicated aircraft program in the National Guard also adds to the preservation of the KC-135 because of the added attention guard crew chiefs pay to the little things.

"They take pride in owning their own aircraft. It's their airplane to work on. If there is a little problem they are there to take care of it. They take pride in it and keep it clean," explained Thorpe.

All of the work does not come easy. According to Kindschuh there are over 20 Air Force specialties under the aircraft maintenance umbrella; separate jobs in hydraulics, avionics and electrical just to name a few.

Even with a regimented schedule, Kindschuh says keeping the aircraft in the air is not an exact science.

"It fluctuates. We like to think an issue contributed to this or that but sometimes it comes down to how the aircraft holds up. Some are better flyers than others," said Kindschuh.

While the KC-135 may be turning 60 this year, plans are already in the works to ensure it lasts into the next generation of pilots and maintainers.

The newest improvement to the KC-135's based in Sioux City are scheduled to begin next year, when the aircraft will be modified with a significant avionics upgrade.  The new "Block 45" avionics upgrade is expected to prolong the life of the KC-135 for at least another 25 years.

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