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Keeping KC-135s flying high
An upgraded instrumentation panel, on the left, is illustrated next to the previous generation panel, on the right. The new panel is part of the Block 45 upgrades being installed in 17 KC-135 Stratotankers to keep the planes modern and extend their utilization. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Airman 1st Class Jose L. Leon)
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Keeping KC-135s flying high

Posted 10/17/2012   Updated 10/17/2012 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo
22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

10/17/2012 - MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan.  -- The first of 17 upgraded KC-135 Stratotankers landed at McConnell for routine maintenance Oct. 16, 2012.

This KC-135 features Block 45 upgrades which are designed to modernize the decades-old aircraft and improve its life expectancy.

"The goal is to keep the planes non-obsolete, relevant and legal to fly," said Maj. Chris Brockman, 22nd Operations Support Squadron operations support training deputy chief. "We're trying to future-proof these planes."

The upgrades include a liquid crystal display screen in the cockpit in place of older gauges on the instrumentation panel and a new autopilot function. The gauges used in current KC-135s are becoming more difficult to find and too expensive to purchase, said Brockman.

The switch from analog gauges to a digital display will also affect aircraft maintenance and repairs.

"As far as maintenance is concerned, the change to analog makes my job easier," said Tech. Sgt. King Sanders, 22nd Air Maintenance Squadron instruments flight controls lead technician. "It also replaces close to 10 other systems with one central computer."

These changes will ensure that Airmen in Sanders' and the communication and navigation fields can do their job efficiently.

"As a maintainer, it's kind of a blessing in disguise," said Sanders.

The planes undergo Block 45 upgrades in Oklahoma before transferring to Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for testing. Each of these aircraft must fly to McConnell for yearly inspections regardless of their home station. The next upgraded KC-135 arrives for the inspections in November.

Before the 17 planes can leave the testing phase and join their operational counterparts in mid-2013, more than 60 pilots will complete initial training and then begin instructing other pilots on the new features.

A Block 45 KC-135 simulator will also be developed as a training tool.

This is the latest in a series of upgrades on the KC-135. Block 20 replaced much of the original instrumentation with 1980's-era technology into the planes while Block 30 improved automation. Block 40 allowed satellite interaction in the previous modernization update.

These constant upgrades and updates help ensure that McConnell, which will eventually house all 17 planes, will keep the KC-135 flying through 2040.

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