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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: KC-135 arrives at McConnell

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Six McConnell KC-135 Stratotankers demonstrate the "elephant walk" formation as they taxi down a runway here during a generation exercise. The exercise showcased McConnell aircrews’ capability to prepare a flight and take off within minutes of being notified of a mission. These types of exercises are conducted randomly each year. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Laura Suttles)

Six KC-135 Stratotankers taxi down a runway Aug. 7, 2005 at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The base received its first tanker from Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio, on June 31, 1971 which initiated what is now 44 years of uninterrupted KC-135 operations at McConnell. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Laura Suttles)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- (Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight in August 2016.)

For the past several decades, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., has served as home to one of the Air Force's most dominant KC-135 Stratotanker fleets. Before then, the base saw many different units and missions pass through, but the arrival of the tanker proved to be pivotal.

The first KC-135A arrived at McConnell AFB along with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron from Rickenbacker AFB, Ohio, on June 31, 1971.

"The squadron's arrival marked the return of Strategic Air Command flying operations to the base following an eight-year absence, and laid the groundwork for the activation of the 384th Air Refueling Wing, SAC's first KC-135R wing," said Mark Morgan, Air Mobility Command historian. "The assignment also initiated what is now 44 years of uninterrupted KC-135 operations at McConnell."

Retired Tech. Sgt. Charles Sawyer, a 381st Strategic Missile Wing security police, was assigned to guard the first KC-135 that arrived here.

As soon as the aircraft touched down and pulled onto the tarmac, Sawyer, with a list of personnel authorized to be on the tanker, spent his first shift as both point guard and perimeter guard for the single aircraft.

The job of a perimeter guard was to direct any personnel who approached the aircraft to the point guard so the point guard could ensure the individual was authorized to be in the area. Typically these jobs were done by several security police, but since it was just a single aircraft, Sawyer was tasked as both.

It wasn't until a few days later that the second tanker arrived and the number of security police guarding the tankers increased.

"We had a checklist [and] the code of the day, and whenever the crew came out to [perform a] preflight [inspection] we had to check them out before they got on the plane," he said.

Although the base's missile operations would eventually be phased out, the 381st SMW security police were still responsible for securing all priority one resources.

"When the first planes arrived, we had to have security for both the missiles and the aircraft," said Sawyer.

Gradually, missiles were emptied from the base and tankers continued to arrive. The 384th ARW eventually assumed host responsibilities from the 381 SMW in 1985.

Since then, the base has continued to see many changes, but its tanker presence has remained consistent. Today, the KC-135 remains the backbone of the Air Force's aerial refueling mission and will continue to provide global support for years to come.