Oldest jet in AF operated, maintained by youngest crews

by Senior Airman Benjamin Stratton
379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

5/23/2013 – SOUTHWEST ASIA — For more than 50 years Airmen have flown the KC-135 Stratotanker to more places and supported more missions than most people experience in three, even four, life times. One such refueler, “57-1419,” recently visited the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing en route to support Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

“We have Eisenhower-era aircraft, flown by crews and serviced by maintainers whose grandparents may not have been old enough to vote for President Eisenhower,” said Lt. Col. James Zick, the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.

Putting things into perspective even further, Capt. Emma House said her dad was 3 years old when 57-1419 rolled off the assembly line. House is assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron deployed from Scott Air Force Base, Ill., and is currently the jet’s aircraft commander.

This 56-year-old refueler, assigned to the 190th Air Refueling Wing of the Kansas Air National Guard, is expected to fly through 2040, according to Air Mobility Command officials. Gen. Paul Selva, the AMC commander, has even said the mother of the last crew chief to service this jet has not been born yet.

Its age, however, hasn’t hindered its usefulness, nor has it dampened its crew’s eagerness to throttle up and take to the sky.

“It’s really a source of pride for me,” House said. “So many generations of other KC-135 pilots have flown her — I can’t even begin to imagine all the places she’s been and the fact I get to fly her on an OEF mission in 2013 is really something special.”

KC-135s are responsible for roughly 65 percent of air-to-air refueling in the 379th’s area of responsibility. With that said, the 340th EARS and AMU are responsible for nearly 40 percent of that.

“There is literally no way to do what we do over Afghanistan without these old jets and young crews that fly and maintain them,” said Lt. Col. Maximilian Bremer, the 340 EARS commander. “Our troops on the ground can count on Air Force and Navy air power overhead within minutes of a request, thanks to the fuel we provide 24/7.”

But for the crews who fly and maintain these aircraft, it’s about much more than how old it is or how much longer the AF plans to fly them.

“It’s definitely an honor for me,” said Senior Airman Rich Bradford, 340th EARS boom operator deployed from Scott AFB. “Words can’t describe how I feel. My dad was 5 when this jet rolled off the line. I’m just glad I’m able to help support troops on the ground anyway I can.”

In 1954, the Air Force purchased the first 29 of its future 732-plane fleet. The first aircraft flew in August 1956 and the initial production Stratotanker was delivered to Castle Air Force Base, Calif., in June 1957. The last KC-135 was delivered to the Air Force in 1965.

“If airplanes could talk, I’d love to hear about the things ’57-1419′ has seen,” said Capt. Neal Brinkworth, 340th EARS mission pilot also deployed from Scott AFB. “I’ve always wanted to be a pilot and have definitely had the bug since my first flight lesson when I was 13-years-old. So joining the Air Force was a dream come true, but this, this definitely tops the books. I’m 27 and flying the oldest jet in the Air Force — simply amazing.”

The mission is two-fold, however, and the aircrew can’t complete the mission without the maintainers and crew chiefs who have kept these jets flying for more than five decades.

Staff Sgt. Ray Demarco, 340th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief deployed from the 108th Air National Guard Wing at McGuire AFB, N.J., said he has “a great deal of pride as a maintainer.”

“I’ve been a guardsman for 12 years, worked on airframes ranging from F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons to heavies like the KC-135, but the Stratotanker is definitely my favorite,” Demarco said. “It’s amazing that what I do and what those who have come before me have done keeps jets like these flying.”

Although it may be the oldest jet, this doesn’t hinder the passion these Airmen have for the KC-135.

“This aircraft requires a great deal of flying skills,” said House as she ran through her preflight checklist. “We’re not passengers, the auto-pilot system is very limited and landing isn’t a walk-in-the-park.”

These aircraft were built before human factors were a significant consideration in cockpit design, Bremer said. This makes them “especially challenging for a generation who grew up with user-friendly devices and trained in modern aircraft.”

The 27-year-old pilot, House, explained why she’d continue flying the Stratotanker even when its eventual replacement rolls off the production line.

“We’re all excited to see the KC-46, but this jet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon,” she explained. “I hope we keep flying this airplane for another 50 years.”

Published by Benjamin W. Stratton

I'm a photojournalist traveling the world sharing what I experience along the way.

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