Parting is such sweet sorrow

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Burke Baker
  • 151 ARW/PA
The all too familiar gray shape appeared on the desert horizon, with its four Pratt and Whitney TF-33-PW-102 engines trailing their telltale exhaust plumes. One of only two remaining KC-135 "E" model Stratotanker aircraft in the Utah Air National Guard was officially delivered to its final resting place at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) on April 24.

This particular jet was one of very few E-model KC-135s left in active service. The venerable aircraft of a generation ago, built to keep up with new "jet-age" bombers and fighters rolling off of the assembly line, touched down onto the Arizona flight line with no applause. There was no fanfare of any kind. As a matter of fact, there really couldn't have been anything more "everyday" about the event. The maintenance and service records were signed over to the receiving official from the AMARG for induction into what has to be considered "aircraft heaven," although most simply know it as the "boneyard".

Simply referring to the patch of desert in southern Arizona as the "boneyard" is a bit unfair. The 2,600 acre facility got its start in 1946 storing WWII bombers and cargo planes, and has since grown into a modern, high-tech industrial organization managing an inventory of more than 4,460 aircraft, 29 aerospace vehicles and 350,000 line items of aircraft production tooling. The group's services include aircraft storage and disposition, parts reclamation and restoration to flight-level maintenance.

However, the fact that these aircraft will be skillfully stored and expertly maintained provides little solace for those who flew them.

"This day may not mean much to some, but I have personally been flying that aircraft since 1983," said Col. Kelvin Findlay, 151st Air Refueling Wing commander. "You become attached to an aircraft with such an impressive track record. It literally becomes a friend."

Tail number 60-0327 rolled off the Boeing assembly plant in 1960, originally serving the active Air Force and later, the citizens of Utah operated by the 191st Air Refueling Squadron. The KC-135s were all originally powered by turbojet engines (designated as the "A" model), however, with the demise of many civilian 707s, the U.S. Air Force took the opportunity to buy the surplus airframes and use those engines to retrofit the KC-135 A-models used by the ANG and Reserve squadrons with the civilian JT3D turbofan (designated TF33-PW-102). Over 150 aircraft were modified, and the former KC-135A was re-designated the KC-135E.

Col. Ron Blunck, commander of the 151st Maintenance Group, served as both an enlisted crew chief and later a master navigator aboard the KC-135.

"The E-model modification was a far-sighted and cost-effective decision by the ANG," he said. "The E-model's performance was a vast leap forward from the A-model, and was a workhorse for the ANG for over 20 years. We could carry heavier fuel loads, and could stop on very short runways with the reverse thrust. The E-model was a very capable aircraft and would still be viable today, but the engines are no longer supportable."

It was this configuration that the Utah ANG flew for over 20 years, supporting the Cold War, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Operations Deny Flight, Decisive Endeavor, and Joint Forge in the Balkans, Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

After long service with the Guard and Reserve, the E-model variants of the KC-135 aircraft's days have come to a close. In October of 2005, the 151st ARW received the first of its eight KC-135R model aircraft to continue its long tradition of extending the reach of American airpower to the state, nation and the world. Once again, the re-engined aircraft uses the same airframe as it's A-model predecessors but can offload more fuel, is more fuel efficient and much quieter than the KC-135E.

"Our maintainers received our R-models with mixed feelings, having to say good-bye to some good old friends," Col. Blunck described. "I have nearly 4,000 hours in the E-model and I will always have many fond memories of the aircraft."

Though a contract has just recently been awarded to produce the KC-45A, the Air Force's newest long-range refueling and cargo platform, there are still predictions that the KC-135R will soar into the wild blue yonder through the year 2025.

And then, the last of those "Vietnam era" aircraft, over 75-years-old, will eventually touch down at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Most likely, too old to be regenerated or sold. So, they will park that familiar gray plane, re-engined twice and flown by more than three generations of pilots in the hot, dry, desert sun where it will await a fate that is yet to be determined.

And it will truly be a sad and sentimental day for those who it served so well.