Twelve Billions Pounds of Fuel

10/29/2010- The maintenance efforts to support the tanker effort are here highlighted. Tech. Sgt. Joseph Vigil, assigned to the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, is seeing performing a final lookover of the blades of a KC-135R Stratotanker engine fan assembly prior to handing them to Tech. Sgt. Eric Peterson, also from the 379th EAMXS, to place back in an engine at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. The fan assembly is inspected every 1,500 hours of engine run time and each of the four engines on the Stratotanker contain 44 blades in the front fan assembly. Both Sgt. Vigil and Sgt. Peterson are deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom and Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.

Credit: 379th  Air Expeditionary Wing, January 9th, 2010

  • The second photo shows Senior Airman Dale McDowell, assigned to the 340th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, watching as Tech. Sgt. Marty Davis, also from the 340th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, places the final blades of a fan assembly for a KC-135 Stratotanker back into the engine after performing a 1,500 hour inspection at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.
  • The final photo shows Tech. Sgt. Marty Davis, assigned to the 340th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, replacing the final blade from an engine fan assembly on a KC-135R Stratotanker engine at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia.

Since 2001 Air Mobility Command tankers have pumped more than 12 billion pounds of fuel into aircraft worldwide.

A recent piece in Stars and Stripes provides a good update to the continuing tanker problem facing the U.S. forces. As the story notes:

The last new KC-135 Stratotanker was delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 1964. After nearly a decade of war, the fleet’s age is showing, most profoundly to the men and women on the ground who keep the 415 tankers flying. Two wars, political bickering, shady dealings and Air Force missteps have delayed the development of a new airborne refueling tanker for much of the past decade. In the meantime, airmen are left to keep this Eisenhower-era granddaddy of the fleet mission-ready, an increasingly difficult and expensive task.“How many cars do you see driving from 1956?” asked Staff Sgt. Dan Kirstler, of the 100th Air Refueling Wing’s maintenance squadron at RAF Mildenhall. And the story adds regarding the maintenance challenges: On flight lines around the world, KC-135 maintainers are charged with keeping these elders mission-ready.

Radio problems and fuel leaks are common, Tech. Sgt. Kevin Harding said, and Mildenhall’s tankers often seem to develop the same problems at the same time, what he called “the flavor of the quarter.”

“Things that weren’t happening 50 years ago are happening now,” he said. “It’s just old.” Some of the problems, such as seals contracting and expanding with the weather, are to be expected on different planes. The KC-135’s age exacerbates the problem. Maintenance airmen also say they regularly face new fix-it problems that aren’t necessarily addressed in the service’s collective KC-135 maintenance knowledge. Due to the work it takes to keep the tankers flying, maintainers sometimes have to “rack and stack” work orders, prioritizing which repair jobs require immediate attention and which can be delayed, Harding said. Stories of near-misses abound among maintainers at Mildenhall. There was the time a plane from a stateside base had landing gear problems and ground its wheels down to the truck when it landed, and the time a refueling boom malfunctioned and the air crew had to jettison its fuel before landing with the boom arm down. It’s getting harder to keep the planes airborne, and maintainers face an increased workload as the wheezing KC-135 finds new ways to show its age.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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