The KC-46 is Air Mobility Command’s newest aerial refueling platform, and now after completing the 24-hour flight, holds AMC’s record for the longest duration flight in its history.
According to the article AMC’s Longest Flight: 24.2 hours in a KC-46A, by Airman Brenden Beezley, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, the KC-46 is Air Mobility Command’s newest aerial refueling platform, and now after completing the 24-hour flight, holds AMC’s record for the longest duration flight in its history.
The flight was for more than just bragging rights and getting in the history books, this was a crucial test of the capabilities of aerial refueling, a key factor of the US Air Force’s global reach.
This flight took several weeks of planning, requiring collaboration from AMC, Boeing and various squadrons around the 22nd ARW.
In the weeks leading up to the flight, the planning teams had to remain flexible, balancing current operational needs, local extreme weather and logistical challenges that arose from the unprecedented nature of this flight.
Safety measures were at the forefront of the flight. The physical and mental well-being of the aircrew was closely monitored by an on-board physician assistant.
The Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, a detailed questionnaire on the crew members current fatigue levels, was administered to the crew throughout the flight in conjunction with the Psychomotor Vigilance Task test, a test developed by NASA that monitors fatigue levels by measuring cognitive function in comparison to a preflight baseline. Additionally, the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool, a software that develops an optimal inflight schedule for the pilots, was implemented for this endurance mission to mitigate the effects of fatigue.
“In flight medicine, our goal is to preserve not only the health and safety of the aircrew, but also to preserve the safety of the missions those aircrew perform,” said Maj. Cory Henderson, 349th Air Refueling Squadron aeromedical physician assistant. “For this mission, we’ve tried to do that from the start of planning and now through the execution phase.”
The aircrew consisted of six pilots, three boom operators, a photojournalist, and a physician assistant. Two pilot teams rotated on and off four-hour shifts. A backup pilot team, ready to step in as needed, focused on gathering data and taking extensive notes. The rotating shifts ensured adequate time for rest and the safety of the mission.
During the 24 hours in flight, the McConnell KC-46 performed dry contacts with another McConnell KC-46, refueled four Marine F-35s, and was refueled by another McConnell KC-46. The flight flew along both of the US international borders as well as along a majority of both of the coasts before ultimately landing back at McConnell, traveling over 9,000 miles, and completing the longest duration flight in AMC history.
The data collected from this will be used to determine the feasibility, limitations, potential risks as well as unique benefits of the KC-46 for long-duration flights.
“This 24-hour sortie is a critical step in the operational evolution of tankers, and the role the KC-46 plays in that,” said Col. Nate Vogel, 22nd Air Refueling Wing commander. “This sortie helps mobility forces identify how best to operate on long-duration sorties from human, to machine, to mission aspects. Long-duration flights are inherently full of risk, and conducting this operation now allows us to identify those risks, and then build and apply mitigations in a more controlled environment. The Joint Force, our allies, and our partners rely on our capability to project combat power globally…we need to be ready to execute anytime, anywhere. This 24-hour sortie is a huge step in realizing that vision.”
The KC-46A is the first phase in recapitalizing the US Air Force’s aging tanker fleet. With greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135, the KC-46A will provide next generation aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and partner-nation receivers.
The aircraft has been in development since Feb. 24, 2011, and its initial flight occurred in Dec. 2014. The current contract, with options, provides Air Mobility Command an inventory of 179 KC-46A tankers. The first KC-46A was delivered to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas on Jan. 25, 2019.
Photo credit: Airman Brenden Beezley / U.S. Air Force