Here’s why the iconic KC-135 Stratotanker, just like a 1950’s car, is still cool 60 years after having come to life

A significant avionics upgrade is expected to prolong the life of the KC-135 Stratotanker for at least another 25 years

Taken on Oct. 10, 2016 at the Air National Guard base in Sioux City, Iowa, the photos in this post clearly show that, despite they were built 60 years ago, many automobiles like the 56 Chevy and aircraft like the KC-135 Stratotanker are still flying down the road and in the air today thanks to the proper maintenance.

The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, which turned 60 this year, was born in response to the need for a new mid-air refueling aircraft to keep up with jet powered aircraft like the B-52 Stratofortress and was first introduced as a replacement for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) aging propeller powered KC-97 refueling aircraft.

Noteworthy at the time of the first KC-135 — nicknamed “The City of Renton” — roll out (which actually took place in 1956), the American automobile industry, fascinated with the smooth lines and curves found in aviation, mimicked them with each new design. In fact cars were faster than ever before and items borrowed from aviation like wrap around windows, wings, turbines and even afterburner tail lights were added to cars in the fifties solely for decoration.

Post-World War era advances in aviation also had planes in the Air Force going much faster, but unlike the ever-changing auto designs of the era, during the ten-year production run of the Stratotanker, the KC-135 didn’t changed in appearance at all from when it first debuted in 1956.

Nevertheless, regular maintenance, along with systematic upgrades have kept the aircraft in continuous service as the USAF primary midair refueling aircraft for the past six decades and today it’s difficult to tell that the KC-135 first flight took place 60 years ago.

“It’s a proven airframe and it hinges on maintenance, from training at the local level to the all the work that’s done at the depot level,” said Iowa National Guard Lt. Col. Kurt Kindschuh, 185th Air Refueling Wing (ARW), Maintenance Group Commander in Sioux City, Iowa. As he explained, the KC-135 didn’t initially accumulate a lot of flight hours during the early part of the Cold War, when it was first introduced. In fact, even if for 15 years has been the only tanker used by the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the KC-135 spent most of its time sat on alert.

However the Stratotanker saw action during the Vietnam conflict where the KC-135s made 813,000 aerial refuelings of combat aircraft and during Operation Desert Storm (the campaign aimed to free Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion), where they made 18,700 hookups and transferred 278 million pounds (126 million kilograms) of fuel. Then, when the KC-135 fleet was transferred to Air Mobility Command (AMC) in the early 1990’s it became the principal way for the U.S. Air Force to project broad power on a global scale, and nowadays the Stratotanker is tasked to refuel long-range bombers as well as transport and fighter aircraft around the world.

Much like preserving a classic car the KC-135 has its issues, but as explained by Master Sgt. Brad Thorpe, 185th ARW Flight Line Supervisor, is a well-designed aircraft and good construction along with rigorous maintenance schedules ensure the aircraft can continue to do its job for years to come.

A claim confirmed by the fact that a significant avionics upgrade is already scheduled to begin next year to ensure the KC-135R lasts into the next generation of pilots and maintainers. In fact, the new “Block 45” avionics upgrade is expected to prolong the life of the Stratotanker for at least another 25 years.

Source: Maintenance key to veteran aircraft 60 years’ service by Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot, 185th Air Refueling Wing, Iowa Air National Guard; Photo credit: Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot 185 ARW Wing PA / U.S. Air National Guard

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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