Boeing’s First KC-135 Served In Many Non-Tanker Roles

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Story by Ken Kula with Nicole Cloutier

The first Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker was delivered to the U.S. Air Force at Boeing’s Renton, Washington plant in January, 1956. Carrying a serial of 55-3118, the first production KC-135A was named the “City of Renton”, and christened with a bottle of local river water. Interestingly, the first jet-powered aerial tanker was delivered at the same time as the final KC-97 propeller-driven tanker was delivered from the same factory.

The first jet was never fully equipped with an aerial refueling system, and was never assigned to a traditional air refueling squadron. In fact, this jet remained with Boeing for testing purposes through 1961. Although the somewhat similar civilian Boeing “Dash 80”/B-707 airliner had blazed a trail with its thorough test process just months earlier, there was some military-specific equipment that had to be added to the basic B-707 design – and tested – before the jet would reach full operational capability. The first flight of the KC-135A didn’t occur until August 31, 1956.

There were some initial squawks with the aircraft’s performance, one of which was a rudder flutter issue at high speeds. Others notable problems that surfaced included issues with very cold weather operations, adverse yaw in certain flight envelopes, and controllability of the flying refueling boom at high speeds. ‘3118 was part of this overall test process, and was used by Boeing to test and certify that design fixes actually solved the specific issues reported.

Finally, on January 21, 1961, the “City of Renton” KC-135A airframe was handed over to the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which ordered it to be converted into the first of a series of airborne communication and control aircraft. 55-3118 was transformed into an EC-135K, and became an airborne command post with the latest secure communications equipment. Three KC-135 airframes were converted to this configuration to give the TAC Commander a secure command and control aircraft during wartime. Special Air Missions were added to the EC-135K’s repertoire, although outwardly the aircraft still looked like an ordinary tanker or C-135 transport. Operation Polo, during which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to Pakistan and China in 1971 to secretly kick-start diplomatic relations with China, used 55-3118 as its primary military transport.

A most important duty assignment for 55-3118 was to a squadron which performed “Head Dancer” missions. During tactical deployment of large groups of aircraft, especially when moving fighters across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the role of the 8th Tactical Deployment Control Squadron (or 8 TDCS) was to keep all aircraft (tankers, receivers and other mission assets) under a command and control system while in the air.

An excerpt from an article written by Airman 1st Class David Bernal Del Agua, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, published June 25, 2014 recalls the mission:
“Our most important mission was escorting fighters,” said retired Lt. Col. Ted Buck. “We flew with squadrons at a time from state side to Vietnam and back.”

“The City of Renton” was retrofitted with bunks, seats, tables, carpeting, soundproofing, and communication equipment after initial testing was complete to fit its new mission.

“Every 90 days we had to spit-shine that plane in the hangars,” said retired Master Sgt. Gene De Forest. “Everyone below captain or master sergeant had to polish. The rule was ‘if you don’t polish, you don’t fly.'”

Command and control was the next mission of 55-3118, it was as a modern satellite for tactical air command.

“We’re talking 45 or 50 years ago,” said Buck. At the time, the capabilities were amazing. We kept radio contact with fighter aircraft no matter where they went. We were very useful and needed.”

In 1982, ‘3118 traded in her quartet of thirsty J57 turbojets for TF33 turbofan power plants, which increased her performance and endurance. Her last duty station was at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, and on October 15, 1996, the forty year old aircraft was retired and sent to McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas to join other aircraft as gate guards.

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McConnell AFB is home to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, which operates KC-135R variants, which are essentially upgraded, partly rebuilt and re-engined original KC-135As. Having the first KC-135A on site affirms the importance of Boeing’s KC-135s and the Air Force’s refueling mission. The name “City of Renton” has been changed to “The Keeper of the Plains”, in reference to a famous statue in Wichita which was featured on the tails of 22nd ARW jets several decades ago. Original J57 engines, and the highly polished finish have been reapplied to the jet, making her look decades younger.

So, the first ever-produced Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker was never an air refueler, but a command and control and communications relay jet after her first assignment as a test aircraft. Some 640 additional USAF KC-135A tankers were later delivered, changing American air power strategy for the next sixty years and beyond. The first jet still survives, and while still not an aerial tanker, it guards the gates to an important air refueling base.

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