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Air Force's 'Flying Gas Stations' Still Pumping After More Than 50 Years

The Boeing Company built more than 700 KC-135 Stratotankers for the Air Force in the 1950s to the mid-1960's. The majority of these "flying gas stations" are still flying today because of delays in building a modernized replacement.

An invitation to fly along with the Washington Air National Guard on a refueling mission Thursday provided a look at what is happening with the venerable jet and its successor.

The aging Stratotankers require a lot of maintenance. Pilot Thorne Tibbitts, a Lt. Colonel in the Washington Air National Guard, said critical components such as engines and avionics have been upgraded over the years.

"It's still a great aircraft,” Tibbitts said from the cockpit of a tanker delivered in 1959. “It's safe. They regularly take it down to the depot and take it right down to the skin and rebuild it.”

Boeing’s $35 billion deal

New planes would be more efficient and Boeing and Airbus duked it out for the contract to build them for a decade. Finally in 2011, workers and Northwest politicians could celebrate when the U.S. Air Force awarded a $35 billion contract to build 179 next generation air tankers.

The assembly line for the new tankers is at Boeing's Everett, Washington, plant. The bigger, more advanced KC-46 model is based on the twin-engine Boeing 767 commercial jetliner.

The next generation tanker program continues to be dogged by difficulties. Last month, Boeing booked a $536 million charge against its earnings for engineering and manufacturing cost overruns.

The first set of new air tankers is scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. Air Force in 2017. They'll be assigned to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. Spokane's Fairchild Air Force Base is competing to host later deliveries.

"As far as the competition goes, everyone wants it and not everybody is going to get it,” Tibbitts said.

Spokane’s big push

Tibbetts, who lives in Spokane, thinks the Inland Northwest air base is well positioned.

"We support a lot of movement through Alaska, a lot of movement across the Pacific,” he explained. “You can't move a lot of airplanes across the ocean without our support. The next closest [tanker base] right now is Salt Lake."

A fleet of new tankers would likely protect Fairchild -- and its many jobs -- in future rounds of military base closings.

Spokane officials and the regional chamber of commerce are trying to leave no stone unturned. The recently approved state construction budget includes $2.7 million to buy out mobile homes and relocate residents under Fairchild's runway approach. Homes encroaching on a potential accident zone could count as a strike against Fairchild in future basing decisions.

"Today, we stand at another critical juncture, and we as a community must rally again to further Fairchild," wrote State Representative Kevin Parker in an op-ed in the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

"In the Joint Land Use Study completed in 2012, it was found that Fairchild accounts for $675 million in overall economic impact throughout the Spokane region, with 1,942 jobs created throughout our community outside of Fairchild. If the base were to close, the impact on our local economy would be substantial. It is imperative we do all we can locally to keep Fairchild strong, giving the base the infrastructure backbone it needs to proudly stand on its own merits."

"We're putting our best foot forward," added Kristine Reeves, the Washington governor's sector lead on military and defense, in an interview.

Fairchild is home to about 35 KC-135 tankers, which are shared by the Air Force's 92nd Air Refueling Wing and the Washington Air National Guard's 141st Air Refueling Wing. Those aging tankers -- and others in the fleet -- could be asked to fly for many more years.

Boeing's contract to build new tankers stretches deliveries to 2028. And even then, the existing KC-135s will not be replaced one for one. If military demands for aerial refueling remain high, some of the most durable of the historic model may be kept in service.

‘I would love to see a new airplane'

In a narrow compartment in the tail of the Stratotanker, boom operator Walt Hinton’s post is on his stomach, laying over controls at an observation window. He said fighters, bombers and cargo planes seeking mid-air fill-ups come so close he can read the pilots' nametags.

"You know a constant joke about our job is all you do is lay down and pass gas. Well, yes,” he said with a laugh.

There will be a lot less laying down on the job in the 21st century air tanker. Hinton said the boom operator in the new KC-46 will work from a seat in the cockpit. He's OK with that.

"I'm not going to lie,” Hinton said. “I would love to see a new airplane. But for the moment, this thing gets the job done."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.