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As KC-135Es Retire, USAF Focus Shifts to KC-X

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --- One of the last of the KC-135E Stratotankers to retire made its final flight Sept. 28 to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and after more than 50 years of service, tail number 56-1503 will be relegated to a life as one of several planes used for aircraft maintenance training on the base.

This KC-135E was built in 1956 and was one of 161 KC-135Es that once were in the Air Force fleet. Today's Airmen keep the current Air Force fleet of 415 KC-135Rs flying until they will be replaced in the decades to come.

The KC-135E also brings to light the Air Force's need to get the new KC-X tankers, Air Mobility Command officials said.

On Sept. 24, just four days before the Sheppard AFB KC-135E was flown for the last time, Department of Defense officials announced a new KC-X tanker draft request for proposal has gone out. The plan calls for 179 aerial refueling tankers to replace the half-century old KC-135. The new KC-X will also augment the airlift fleet by carrying cargo, passengers and medical patients in a secondary role.

With the KC-X announcement, Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, the AMC commander, was glad to hear the news.

"This is a great day not only for Air Mobility Command, which operates our nation's fleet of aerial refueling aircraft, but also for our country as this is a capability we critically need," he said. "As a warfighter, I'm glad to see this day come."

As the KC-X process continues, officials said AMC's challenge will be to continue meeting a steep requirement of worldwide air refueling needs by the Air Force and its joint and coalition partners. That job falls to the aircrew, maintenance and other support personnel.

The KC-135 fleet currently maintains an 80 percent mission capable rate, officials from AMC's Logistics Directorate reported. For each hour of flight of a KC-135, it requires an average of seven to eight man-hours of maintenance. The KC-135E sent to Sheppard AFB to train maintenance Airmen helps in preparing new maintainers to meet this effort.

In the Air Force, every time a KC-135 mission is flown, it requires a crew chief and two assistants to inspect the plane for repairs. When something needs repaired, a specialist is called in. Currently, the top KC-135 systems incurring the most maintenance man-hours in the field are the fuel tank systems, auxiliary power units, flight controls and engine instruments.

Another item to consider is every year, approximately 72 KC-135s go through Air Force Materiel Command's depot maintenance with a number of age-related issues needing to be addressed. KC-135 systems and maintenance managers said this is causing the days in depot to grow. Planners also note that the older the KC-135s get, the more resources in time, manpower and money it will takes to fix them.

AMC projections show that in the next 15 to 30 years, there will be an anticipated increase in planned depot maintenance for KC-135s. This will include rewiring, reskinning, corrosion control and other structural maintenance as well as overhauling flight controls and upgrading aging analog systems in the aircraft. That extra maintenance could increase annual costs anywhere from $2 billion to $6 billion.

While some retired KC-135Es are set up for training at Sheppard AFB, others are set aside for parts at the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.

"It (the aircraft) may be here for another 15 to 20 years as we harvest parts off it," said Col. Tom Schneider, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group commander. "We are going to put this aircraft to good use. It will go into storage, which means it will be eligible for parts withdrawal to keep the rest of the fleet flying."

Officials are confident they can keep the worldwide air refueling mission going with the KC-135R and KC-10 Extender fleet. However, they also are fervently awaiting the new tanker.

The time is now to move on with this program, said General Lichte of the Air Force's No. 1 procurement priority. This is a critical commitment to recapitalize a key aircraft supporting the national military strategy.

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As KC-135Es Retire, Air Force Officials' Focus Shifts to KC-X