60 years in the air: the birth of a tanker legacy

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tara Fadenrecht
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's note: This is the first 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 first flight in August 2016.)

More than 60 years ago, the idea of a tanker able to keep up with the technologically advanced jet-propelled aircraft was just that, an idea. The idea became a reality and the aerial refueler would go on to leave its mark for decades to come, not only here at the Air Force's premier KC-135 Stratotanker wing, but around the globe as well.

"The KC-135 was born out of necessity and innovation," said Michael Lombardi, The Boeing Company corporate historian in a July 2006 article. "In the early 1950s, Strategic Air Command was beginning to operate the new jet-powered Boeing B-52 Stratofortress that, with in-flight refueling, was capable of striking targets anywhere in the world."

The technological differences between the prop-driven KC-97 Stratotanker, SAC's primary aerial refueling tanker at the time, and the newer, jet-propelled aircraft proved to be less than ideal.

"While the KC-97 could and did refuel the jets in flight, doing so was problematic due to the KC-97's low speed and limited altitude capability," said Mark Morgan, Air Mobility Command historian. "SAC wanted a jet-powered tanker, which would enable the bombers to take on more fuel, at higher altitudes and more quickly, thus contributing to the success of their mission."

To keep up with the expanding tactical and strategic air fleet, blueprints for the KC-135 were soon developed and transitioning to the initial production phase began at Boeing's facility in Renton, Washington.

Manufacturing of the updated refueling tanker was underway by 1954 and the first KC-135A production model, serial number 55-3118, rolled off the assembly line in a ceremony on July 18, 1956, said Morgan.

Nicknamed "City of Renton", the aircraft weighed a total of 275,000 pounds and had a top speed of 600 mph.

"They're built like a tank," said Col. Phil Heseltine, 22nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander. "They're probably 150 percent stronger than anybody would have needed in an airplane."

On Aug. 31, 1956, Aircraft 55-3118 completed its first flight at the Boeing facility where it was manufactured.

"[After final testing and modifications], the aircraft  was delivered to the Air Force's Air Material Command at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, on Jan. 24, 1957," said Morgan.

Aircraft 55-3118 was the first of 732 KC-135s to show the impact these tankers had and continue to have on aerial refueling. After decades of supporting the mission, it was retired and is currently on display near the east gate here.

"The KC-135 is the reason why we are the best Air Force in the world," said Heseltine. "There is no question about it. We [the Air Force] can't be who we are without our tankers."