Cars have had backup cameras for years. Pilots have had fly-by-wire controls for even longer. So why shouldn’t the airmen who have been getting down on their bellies for decades at the back end of the Air Force’s aerial tankers get some of that nifty technology? That way, they can sit up in the front of the plane with their buddies and refuel warplanes remotely. (This kind of thinking is why some refer to the service as the Chair Force.)
Well, that’s exactly what the Air Force is trying to do in its brand-new KC-46 Pegasus tanker with its “fly-by-wire refueling boom.” Unfortunately, it’s not going well.
Beyond the plethora of production delays and cost overruns common to almost all Pentagon programs, the KC-46 is still having problems performing its key mission—refueling other airplanes—and will for years. (The snafus come at a particularly bad time for Boeing: the company’s new 737 Max 8 airliners have become the subject of intense scrutiny following two crashes, one in October that killed all 189 aboard, and a second on March 10 in which all 157 onboard died.)
But it does illustrate—very well, alas—a peculiar Pentagon pathology: why go with the tried-and-true (aerial refueling with manually-operated booms dates back to the Truman Administration) when there is a more complicated and costly way that might work?
It also illustrates, gulp, a welter of corruption and conflicts that has led to a nearly 20-year quest to replace the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet, most of which is now eligible for AARP membership.
All kidding aside, aerial tankers are the unsung heroes of U.S. military deployments.
Basically flying gas stations, the Air Force’s fleet of about 500 tankers, almost all of them KC-135s, is one of the Pentagon’s most amazing marvels. Without them, U.S. warplanes, including those flown by the Navy and Marines, would be restricted to short flights over their targets, and forced to be based in war zones. The tanker fleet doesn’t get a lot of love, but it should. As the boomers themselves like to say: “Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas.”
I’ve been on both ends of aerial refueling missions. Flying over southeastern Turkey, it was amazing to squat next to the boom operator as he fed fuel to F-16s flying Operation Northern Watch, the no-fly zone the U.S. and its allies imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1997 until the U.S. invasion six years later. And I recall sitting in the jump seat of the cockpit aboard the E-4B “doomsday plane”—the modified Boeing 747 from which a U.S. president would wage nuclear war—as we gulped fuel several times during an around-the-world trip in 1998 (including one 22-hour leg).
Most of us on the flight were told to move to the front of the plane to avoid the stomach-churning “porpoising” that could happen as the E-4B’s nose held steady during refueling, while its tail rose and fell like the marine mammal jumping above the waves. It sure beat landing for an hour or two to refuel.
Despite serving as the backbone of U.S. airpower, these lumbering beasts lack the glamour of sleek fighters and hulking bombers. The tankers’ humdrum mission is one reason.
And, for a relatively simple airplane that is a modified version of the commercial airliners anyone can fly on, the Air Force has had a tough time replacing them. (end of excerpt)
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