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Old Dog, New Tricks: 1st KC-135 Hot Refuel in History

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Fred Jackson
  • 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander

On Sept. 21, 2020, the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, completed a validation and verification of procedures created to perform a KC-135 Stratotanker engine-running refuel, also known as a hot refuel, marking the first time in the 64-year history of the aircraft that it was hot refueled! The procedures were conducted by handpicked Airmen from the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, and the 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron. The procedures worked as planned, and the KC-135 was safely refueled, taxied off of the parking spot, and performed a simulated take-off.

In true “Grand Slam” fashion, both maintenance and operations were developing new tactics to align with the National Defense Strategy of how to win a high-end peer conflict. The team determined that the wing needed the capability to increase the chance of survival of the fleet against any threat. Lt. Col. Isaiah Oppelaar, 340 EARS commander, clearly articulated the requirement.

“Survivability of the KC-135 fleet means we need to keep the aircraft in the air where we can defend it, and to do that we need to increase reliability and speed of tanker regeneration times,” said Oppelaar.

Gaining the ability to refuel with engines running maintains reliable power and air from the engine and minimizes any ground support needed, thereby extending the reach of the tanker throughout the entire theater of operations.

A maintenance validation team was formed from throughout the 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Group, and with direction from the commander performing a two-week sprint to develop KC-135 technical procedures for hot refueling. Representatives from Air Mobility Command, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Systems Safety Office, Air Force Petroleum Office, the KC-135 System Program Office, and 100th Air Refueling Wing from United States Air Forces Europe joined the team and jumped right into understanding our new requirement. Within 60 days, they got us to “yes.”

“I am in awe of how the entire team, across multiple [major command] staffs, maintenance, operations, logistics, engineering, and safety all came together and embraced a true warfighter requirement,” said Capt. Aaron Pence, 379th EAMXS’s KC-135 aircraft maintenance unit officer-in-charge and validation team lead.  

This entire project directly aligns with the vision of Gen. Charles (CQ) Brown, Jr., Chief of Staff of the Air Force, as described in his August 2020 paper titled “Accelerate Change or Lose.” Those words and perspectives became the mantra of the team.

In the short term, the team will finalize the procedures and formally update and publish for use by KC-135 units throughout United States Central Command’s theater.  This change will enable operational planners to redefine agility, as they will have increased reliability and speed to regenerate aircraft at forward operating locations. Long term, this increased capability will fundamentally change the way operational planners in all combatant commands bed-down, base, plan, and employ the KC-135. It is a paradigm shift of incredible magnitude.

As the team celebrated when the validation was complete, they had a look of dedication in their eyes – they knew this was just the beginning.