TRAVIS AFB, Calif. --- The 59th and final KC-10 Extender was modified and flown here March 28, signifying the completion of a six-year project.
Since 2011, KC-10 fleets at Travis and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, have been undergoing flight management system modifications. The new system, called the Communication, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management system, modernizes the aircraft, increases mission effectiveness and improves fuel efficiency.
Aircrews previously operated the Flight Management System 800, but have gradually been turning over to the CNS/ATM, developed by an Air Force contracting company. Multiple tankers from Travis and JBMDL were flown in succession over the course of the project to Will Rogers World Airport, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to undergo the modification. Once there, the modification process took several months to complete.
Once a jet was finished, aircrews went back to Oklahoma City to receive the aircraft and complete an acceptance check flight to ensure the upgrade was fully effective. If so, the jet would be flown home to be replaced by the next in line.
The 59th and final ACF was especially significant, said the aircrew that completed it.
“It was an honor to pick up the last modified jet from an important modernization program that will keep the KC-10 in the fight for years to come,” said Capt. Melissa Hughes, 9th ARS instructor pilot. “There has been a ton of spotlight on the KC-46 [Pegasus] as the tanker of the future, but the KC-10 has been an important asset for the last 35 years and will remain relevant for years to come with this upgrade.”
“We were sitting on the runway ramp about to do the ACF and we could look outside and all the [contracting] team, all the people who were managing this entire project, were watching us leave,” said 1st Lt. Robert Bedell, 9th ARS pilot. “It was their milestone. For them it was huge, and you got to see them excited that their project is done.”
The ACF consisted of seven approaches and various flight maneuvers fully testing the modification.
“The check flight was the most intense because of the scenario we had to fly,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Young, 6th ARS instructor flight engineer. “There was a lot of things going on all at once, so it’s pretty involved.”
Upon a successful landing from the ACF, the crew of four was presented with a coin from the contracting team, signifying the completion of the entire project and the acceptance of the 59th aircraft.
“When we were coined, it was unexpected,” said Tech Sgt. Daniel Flenniken, 6th ARS instructor boom operator. “But I finally realized the huge milestone that it was.”
The previous FMS 800 system used gyroscopes to display functions and status of the aircraft, such as the accelerometer. These gyroscopes would often overheat and require maintenance.
“The old gyroscopes generated a lot of heat, which affected other components [of the aircraft],” said Flenniken. “They would fail.”
The CNS/ATM replaces the old gyroscopes with an infrared laser system. The system increases accuracy while generating significantly less heat, which in turn increases fuel efficiency for the aircraft, said Flenniken.
“Especially in a deployed environment, where you’re in 100-degree weather and you have a component that has to run at 60 degrees and it’s running at 105 degrees, you’re going to run it ragged a lot faster,” said Bedell. “For completing the worldwide mission of deployments and getting around the world, it will be a lot better for that.”
The CNS/ATM also features a working phone, allowing aircrews to call anywhere in the world right from the aircraft, in flight. This capability makes a world of difference in communication, said Young.
“I’ve seen in critical situations, it helps being able to call back to the home station or call the director of operations and get the right words instantly, ‘this is what needs to happen, this is what you need to do,’ from the other side of the world,” he said.
Weather can also be requested in flight using the new system.
“We can request weather wherever we’re headed to right from the box, and it’ll give us the weather for that location like a text message,” said Flenniken.
The CNS/ATM is more reliable and decreases workload for both aircrew and maintenance, said Bedell.
Despite initial resistance at having to retrain to a new system with new checklists, personnel are now seeing the payoff, said Flenniken.
“After people started using the CNS box, they found out how much it could do and now everyone prefers the CNS,” he said.
After the final ACF was complete, the aircrew signed for the aircraft, confirming it was fully modified and in working condition.
“It was a bit of a shock when I was asked to sign for possession of the aircraft on behalf of the Air Force and Travis AFB,” said Hughes. “There is nothing quite like signing your name for an $88 million aircraft and being trusted to bring it home from a major upgrade safely.”
The aircrew felt humbled to be part of a significant milestone in Air Force history, they said.
“It’s always cool to be a part of a stepping stone in history,” said Young. “It was cool to say ‘hey, I brought that there and I did that’.”
“I'm [moving] this summer, so it was cool for me to be able to make a contribution to Travis AFB and the KC-10 community before I go,” said Hughes. “We have been exceptionally busy lately with fighter movements, cargo runs and missions downrange, and we have been struggling with having enough tails available to do these important missions. It was awesome being able to bring another aircraft back to the fight.”