Sioux City, Iowa --
At first glance it looks every bit like the same lumbering giant that preceded it. The subtle differences are unnoticed until it looms closer. One of the first things you notice is what you don't see. The familiar trail of black smoke is gone. Then your ears deceive you. You wait for it to grow louder, but instead it sneaks up on you with an unexpected stealth.
If you were not looking for the behemoth, you would probably not even pay attention to its arrival. It was the first KC-135 "R" Stratotanker touching down at the Iowa Air National Guard's 185th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) in Sioux City as the flying wing embarked on its new mission.
The old timers are the first to point out the engines. The larger engine is literally the biggest difference in the upgraded KC-135. The first time Tech. Sgt. Tim Goehring got up close and personal with the newer General Electric (GE) CFM56 engine, his reaction was the same as everyone else.
"Wow those are big motors," said Goehring a veteran crew chief with the 185th.
Goehring or "O-ring" as he is affectionately known, was one of a handful of crew chiefs who were the first to attend the KC-135 E to R conversion school this year. He and the rest of the 185th crew chiefs are well aware that with the newer aircraft comes an expanded mission.
"We will be going to different parts where we haven't gone yet," Goehring said calmly. "These planes are a different tasking than the E-models," Goehring added, when referring to the potential of being more involved in the global mission of the U.S. military and longer deployments.
While the quieter more fuel efficient GE engines are the first noticeable difference in the R model, the aircraft has gone through a significant metamorphosis since it first started flying in the Air Force in 1956. Another significant upgrade to the KC-135 was completed as recently as 2002 when the aircraft was modified with the Pacer-CRAG (Compass, Radar and GPS) program which eliminated the need for a navigator and cut the crew down to three, which includes the boom operator.
When the 185th began flying the older KC-135 "E" in 2003 after converting from F-16 fighters, the older KC-135 came with some restrictions. But now, according to Lt. Col. Scott Plambeck, current operations officer with the 185th, the chains have been broken.
"This conversion will significantly expand our capabilities and improve our reliability," said Plambeck. "We will be able to carry more fuel farther." That is the bottom line for the Sioux City based refueling wing who, like other Air National Guard units are looking for longevity in an ever shrinking Air Force.
The 185th ARW has already received some of its R-model aircraft and plans to see its full compliment of eight aircraft arrive quietly at the Sioux City airport before the end of 2007.