KC-135R Stratotanker Cockpit Military Jet Tanker DVD

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A Brief History of the US Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker

The KC-135 Stratotanker was a replacement for the existing propeller-powered KC-97 tanker which was developed in 1950. The KC-97 traces its lineage back to the B-29 of WWII fame. However, the KC-97 did not possess the speed nor the altitude capability to keep up with the increasing number of jet bombers and fighters being developed in the 1950s. In particular, the B-52 would have to lower its flaps and landing gear to match the slow speed of the KC-97. So clearly, a refueling tanker that could keep up with military jets of the era was required.

The US Air Force, in the mid-1950s, invited new tanker designs from military aircraft manufacturers. The two entries were from Boeing and Lockheed. Boeing’s KC-135 Strato tanker was already built and flying whereas Lockheed’s 193 had yet to be built. The Air Force chose Lockheed’s design but ordered 250 of KC135 tankers in the interim from Boeing until Lockheed’s tanker could be built. In the end, however, the Air Force decided to cancel the Lockheed order because they wished to standardize on one design to simplify maintenance and training.

For refueling, the KC-135 uses a “flying boom” controlled by a boom operator near the tail of the KC135. Most US Air Force aircraft use this method of refueling. The operator maneuvers (“flies”) the boom to mate with a refueling receptacle on top of the aircraft being refueled. For US Navy, Marine and NATO aircraft using a refueling probe, the KC-135 has a pod under each wing that provides a “probe-and-drogue” refueling capability. The flying boom on the KC135 can also be converted to “probe-and-drogue” in order to refuel these aircraft (but not while aloft).

Over the years, the fleet of KC135 Stratotankers has received multiple upgrades. The original engines were upgraded to increase the thrust by almost 100%. In the KC-135 cockpit, the avionics were upgraded to eliminate the navigator crew position.

Despite the upgrades, the almost 60 year old KC135 design is starting to show its age in the form of airframe corrosion and increased maintenance costs, thus prompting the US Air Force to consider more modern alternatives. The decision was to gradually replace the KC-135 fleet in stages with the KC-46 design which is based on Boeing 767 jetliner.

- Aeroclipper Video

Sources:

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_KC-135_Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker, US Air Force website, http://www.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=110, 12/29/2011