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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: the KC-135 in the Cold War

A B-52 Stratofortress approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker for an aerial refueling training mission, Sept. 2, 2015, over Kansas. The KC-135 has been providing American and allied forces aerial refueling capabilities since the 1950s. The B-52 is assigned to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and the KC-135 is assigned to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing stationed at McConnell AFB, Kan. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman Jenna K. Caldwell)

A B-52 Stratofortress approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker for an aerial refueling training mission, Sept. 2, 2015, over Kansas. The KC-135 has been providing American and allied forces aerial refueling capabilities since the 1950s and played a major role in the deterrence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Jenna Caldwell.)

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.)

The crew of a KC-135 Stratotanker received orders for a short mission during the rising tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Their goal was to provide fuel for an RC-135 aircraft as it gathered classified information about the Soviet Union and their defenses.

The KC-135 took off from Fairbanks, Alaska to meet up with the reconnaissance aircraft as they flew near the northern Soviet Union. As the scheduled mission was nearing completion, the RC-135 crew requested continued support as they gathered further information. The quick mission for the KC-135 soon changed into a much longer task that presented unexpected challenges to the crew.

This required some quick thinking and a little bit of improvising from the aircraft's navigator.

"I was actually plotting points on my desk because I did not have a chart that was designed for a long mission," said retired Maj.  Jim Hickman, former KC-135 navigator. "When we finally turned around we were closer to England than we were to Alaska."

The crew managed to provide the RC-135 with the support needed to successfully complete the mission despite the difficulties they faced. It was just one of many missions the KC-135 supported during the Cold War.

It also provided support for other aircraft that were imperative to operations throughout the Cold War such as the B-52 Stratofortress.

"[The KC-135 mission] was all geared toward the success of the bomber," said the retired navigator. "And it had to be in order to be a deterrent for the Soviet Union not to launch their missiles and aircraft against the United States."

Tanker crews from McConnell spent time waiting for their call to help keep bombers in the air and the Soviet Union at bay.

Hickman said he and his crew were some of the first to pull alert duty at the old alert facility here, which was recently torn down. From there they were called out to join up with and provide fuel to strategic aircraft that were in the air waiting for the signal to take any necessary actions to prevent a large-scale war.

"The tankers were the lifeblood for the B-52s," said Hickman. "Without the KC-135s, the bombers may or may not have reached their destination. If they did reach their destination, they would be required to drop their weapons.  Then, they would probably just crash. It'd be like a suicide mission, and the United States doesn't think like that."

The tensions between the two countries eventually calmed down enough that the bombers were never called to drop their weapons and Hickman claims the global deterrence they provided with the help from the KC-135s possibly prevented a third world war. 

According to the National Museum of the Air Force, the ever-present threat of nuclear weapons made the Cold War the most dangerous period in world history, but the diligent efforts of the men and women of the U.S. Air Force helped bring this conflict to a peaceful end.