It's the B-52 that's most often the butt of jokes about its age, with onlookers noting that airmen could be working on the same planes their grandfathers flew. But another long-serving aircraft could hit the century mark: It's now looking like the KC-135 tanker fleet could mark 100 years in the air before its replacement is finally ready.
Tankers are an essential component of American airpower. They supply U.S. and allied warplanes and support aircraft with the gas to cross oceans and fly longer over battlefields.
The KC-135 Stratotanker first joined the Air Force in 1956. A modified Boeing 707 civilian airliner, the KC-135 was equipped with internal tanks capable of holding 200,000 pounds of aviation fuel and a midair refueling boom. The result was an aircraft that has refueled U.S. and allied fighters, bombers, and support aircraft in every conflict and theater since the Vietnam War. Hundreds of KC-135s were built between 1956 and 1965. , the U.S. Air Force currently flies 153 KC-135s, while the Air National Guard operates 172 such planes and the Air Force reserve flies another 72.
The Air Force is currently preparing to purchase , which is a new plane derived from the Boeing 767. However, USAF won't be buying enough of the Pegasus to replace all KC-135s.
There's another tanker project, tentatively named “KC-Z,” allegedly set to enter service in the 2030-2035 timeframe. KC-Z could use a new, low-observable airframe, making it more difficult for enemies to detect with radar. There is also the possibility the future tanker will be optionally manned or unmanned. However, given the difficulties involved in building the KC-46, including long delays and cost overruns, a brand new tanker could be postponed into the 2040s.
No matter what happens with the new planes, it now appears likely that at least a few KC-135s, and perhaps many of them, will reach the century mark. It seems ridiculous to imagine an aircraft produced a hundred years ago, in 1918, could be useful to U.S. Air Force today. But an aircraft produced in 1956 indeed will still have value in 2056.
As long as the airframes are sound (and flying tanker missions doesn’t stress aircraft airframes the way fighter missions do) and the aircraft are provided with necessary safety, avionics, and perhaps even engine upgrades, there may not necessarily be anything wrong with a tanker built during the Eisenhower administration flying in the mid-21st century.
Via Task & Purpose and