Replacing the KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft with the newer KC-46A Pegasus will be bittersweet for members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Pilot Lt. Col. Ron Brand with the KC-46 program integration office will be sad to see the 135s go.
“It (KC-135) is iconic,” he said. “There’s a lot of history. You can imagine people flying around from the time of the Vietnam War — you got a lot of people who needed a lot of gas and were in tight situations — to the most current conflicts — same thing, things don’t change, passing gas.
“You are critical to those (aircraft) supporting troops on the ground, the soldier that’s carrying the rifle who desperately needs a bomb dropped near him to survive. And the only way they can do it is to have the gas available to keep them in the air.”
Brand said at one point, the KC-135 was the latest and greatest refueling aircraft, and everyone was excited about it and its capabilities.
“And now here we are 60 years later with the KC-46,” he said. “A lot of improvements have happened between now and then. It only gets better, more efficient, better for the crews, from what I understand. Technology is pretty good.”
The 916th ARW is scheduled to receive its first KC-46 between October and December of next year.
“We’re looking to get 12 of the aircraft, and they’ll stagger it,” Brand said. “It all depends on the timeline when it comes to get the aircraft whether or not we’ll get two tails (KC-46s) a month, three tails a month or whatever. Right now, we’re tracking for October, November and December 2020 to receive anywhere from three to five tails and the next quarter, January, February and March 2021, another three to five tails. Then we continue to do that until we get all 12 aircraft.”
That’s how the 916th is basing new construction and renovations at some existing buildings on base.
“The original date for construction of a new hangar was December 2019, but that has slipped to March 2020,” said Lt. Col. Bryan Alston, civil engineering representative for the KC-46 program integration office. “With construction, you always have changes as you build.”
Several other projects in connection with the KC-46 were scheduled to be finished in May 2019, but that date has changed to June 2019.
Alston said the old hangar for the KC-135 has been demolished and construction crews are working on a new hangar that will be a lot bigger, housing two KC-46s.
Brand said the old hangar was built in the 1940s and was not only old, but inefficient.
“The flow of work in the new hangar will be a lot more efficient and safer as well,” he said.
“There is a whole block worth of renovations that are extremely old and very inefficient. A lot of them are getting renovated just by coincidence with the arrival of the KC-46. The timing is all quite good.
“By the time we get the aircraft here, we will have not only new buildings to accommodate the new needs and requirements of the KC-46, but those old buildings were already scheduled to be renovated. You can come back in about three years and everything is going to be new, efficient. I think the taxpayers are really getting a good bargain.”
Alston said the construction will increase and eventually the Goldsboro community will start benefiting with more jobs and more activity on base, which will boost the community, putting more dollars into it.
Basing the aircraft at Seymour Johnson AFB will lead to a $26.4 million investment, including construction of a new hangar, and 53 additional full-time, on-base personnel.
Receiving a new aircraft will also mean training for all crew members and maintenance personnel. Training for crews could take about three or four months.
The new plane means new technology, especially for the boom operator, whose job it is to deliver fuel from his plane to another aircraft in mid-air. In the KC-135, he did that from a boom pod in back on the plane. In the KC-46, he will do it from the cockpit using a three-dimensional video camera.
“We’ll have to go back to school and be retrained on the new aircraft,” said boom operator Master Sgt. Riccardo Bonicelli. “I think it’s a good idea to get onboard with the technology, which will require a change in people’s attitudes.”
Bonicelli noted that the KC-46 can hold more cargo than the KC-135. And it can hold more fuel and carry more patients and troops.
“It is a much more capable aircraft,” he said. “The 1950s-something aircraft (KC-135) I was flying on last week is not as efficient. The KC-135 is a fantastic aircraft, but it’s time for a new horse.”
Maintenance personnel will also have to be trained for the new plane. And once the KC-46s arrive, they can do hands-on training.
“It’s supposed to be easier to maintain,” said Chief Master Sgt. Kevin Cameron, maintenance representative for the program integration office. “A lot of the technology for the 135 was built back in the 1950s. There was a lot of redundancy in the system. The KC-46 is more efficient, easier to fly, easier to maintain, has more computers and technology and has less moving parts.
“This aircraft will bring a lot to our nation and our allies with its multi-role capability.”
With the KC-46, in addition to new buildings and personnel, there will also be new equipment to support it.
Coordinating every piece of equipment that’s going on the KC-46 is Technical Sgt. Erica Blanton, supply liaison between the 4th Fighter Wing Logistics Squadron, 916th Air Refueling Wing Logistics Readiness Squadron and Boeing Co.
“That means creating all new accounts and entering all new stock numbers that this bird will have, which is roughly around 1,300 items,” she said. “We have to have support equipment to support the bird when it gets here.”
Before the KC-46 gets to Seymour Johnson AFB, the 916th’s 12 KC-135s will be sent to other bases that currently have those planes. Brand said the 916th won’t be operating both aircraft here at the same time.
“I encourage people out in town to ask questions about the KC-46 and what’s going on around here because it does impact the community,” Brand said.
“We’re lucky to not only have a great team on base, but also out in town.”