ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Altus AFB is slated to become the home of the new KC-46 Pegasus. While the base looks forward to the new arrival, it brings up thoughts of how we acquired our two current aircraft: the KC-135 Stratotanker and C-17 Globemaster III.
Altus AFB welcomed the KC-135 in 1957 with the intent to support bombers at the time. The B-47 bombers were too fast to be refueled efficiently by the previous tankers. Since the bombers were located here already, the KC-135 came as a package deal when it was released.
In the late 1960s, the KC-135 found its niche as a force multiplier. It was difficult for fighter jets to make the travel over the seas of southeast Asia and the KC-135 allowed them to do exactly that by refueling them mid-journey.
The KC-135 refueled Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft as well. By refueling inflight, the tanker could even help aircraft with damaged fuel tanks cruise until they could find a suitable place to land.
One joint operations KC-135 refueling success story happened during the Vietnam War. Three naval planes in Vietnam needed fuel and the naval tankers didn’t have enough fuel to refuel them. An Air Force KC-135 was called in to refuel the naval tanker. Naval fighter planes are unable to receive fuel from non-naval tankers so the KC-135 passed fuel through the naval tanker which was hooked up to the fighter aircraft.
This type of support has lasted through every major conflict of the United States, although nothing quite stands out like the KC-135’s involvement in the Cold War.
This history of the KC-135 is obvious when you look inside of one. Designed to withstand extreme conditions, it contains measures to survive during a nuclear blast which is telling of the times and wartime sentiment during the Cold War.
Years later, the bombers left Altus but the KC-135 continued its training at the base, adding to its long history of legacy and tradition as two new additions came to Altus to train. Since Altus has pristine weather conditions for year-round flying, in 1953 carrier planes such as the C-141 Starlifter and the C-5 Galaxy started training here in addition to the tankers.
Following the trend of carriers, it was only natural that the C-17 was picked to be at Altus. It took some time for the C-17 to arrive to Altus, yet the base was ready to receive the aircraft by pre-training crews so that they would be ready to start flying, similar to today’s preparations for the KC-46’s arrival. The C-17 arrived in Altus to start training in 1996.
The C-17 serves as one of the Air Force’s premiere aircraft for transporting large materials and cargo, as well as passengers. The C-17 was clearly designed for its versatile combat role. Being able to land and take off on makeshift runways, 3,500 feet long capabilities, drop off contents while flying and fly more than 7,800 miles before needing to refuel are just a few of the many features the aircraft has for battlefield operations.
Some of the most memorable uses of C-17s are not combat related at all however. The U.S. Air Force has used C-17s in many humanitarian missions. Missions have been flown to makeshift runways in Haiti during the earthquake of 2010 and Altus aircraft and crews even flew multiple missions to Puerto Rico, using the aircraft’s cargo capabilities to bring supplies to the citizens.
Every loadmaster, boom operator and pilot for the KC-135 and C-17 come through Altus AFB for training. The work that Altus AFB Airmen do supports the flight and accomplishments of these aircraft.
When the KC-46 was announced, it was decided that most pilots and boom operators would be coming from the KC-135. Since they were already accustomed to the area of Altus and there was plenty of room to grow on base, it made natural sense for the newest tanker to find its home in Altus. However, the KC-46 won’t replace the KC-135 in the near future.
“The KC-135 isn’t going anywhere any time soon,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Darin Dial, operations officer assigned to the 56th Air Refueling Squadron. “The KC-135 is still a capable aircraft with plenty of personnel who operate within it. The KC-46 has better capabilities like being able to use boom and a centerline drogue system on the same sortie without needing to land to swap them.”
While not replacing the KC-135, the KC-46 will bring new attributes to the Air Force and the training at Altus. Specifically, the KC-46 will broaden and enhance the Air Force’s war-fighting capabilities. The unique aircraft will be able to both give and receive fuel in addition to transporting cargo and passengers. The KC-46 will be a perfect fit at Altus AFB as it is able to train with both the KC-135 and the C-17.
Altus has a long history of training aircraft crews in support of the Air Force mission at home and abroad. With the next generation tanker’s arrival just around the corner, Altus stands ready to continue helping extend global mobility reach.