TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Within the next 10 years, the Air Force plans to transition out the majority of its current aerial refueler fleet to make way for the new Boeing [BA]-made KC-46A Pegasus tanker.
While a few years will pass before the McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 Extender and the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker begin to go to the boneyard, bases around the country are already preparing for a transition that changes the layout of their base and eliminates the traditional flight engineer role while airmen also get used to the new aircraft itself.
For the 9th Air Refueling Squadron, part of the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, the change will be felt at a deep level as the Air Force plans to retire its fleet of 59 KC-10 Extender refueling aircraft right around the same time as new KC-46 aircraft come online.
The Pegasus was developed to replace the KC-135, not the KC-10, but Travis will begin retiring its fleet of 27 KC-10s a few years after the first KC-46 comes on base, and be on the frontlines of a culture change from the aging but beloved KC-10, to the modern and still relatively unknown KC-46. Travis is scheduled to receive 24 KC-46A aircraft, beginning with number 93 off the production line in 2023.
The KC-10s were selected for retirement as the Air Force looked to reduce its budget, said Lt. Col. Jesper Stubbendorff, commander of the 9th Air Refueling Squadron, in an Aug. 12 interview with Defense Daily on the flight line at Travis.
“When you get rid of all the airplanes as opposed to just a few, you can get rid of the whole supply system that supports it,” Stubbendorff said.
The upcoming changes have presented uncertainty for the airmen on base as to when the shift will happen and how it will impact future refueling pilots, boomers and maintainers, he added. While the aircraft is scheduled to show up on base beginning in 2023, the program has suffered from multiple setbacks and delays, and Air Mobility Command Commander Gen. Maryanne Miller told reporters at a recent conference in Washington, D.C., that she was concerned about Boeing’s progress on resolving several Category-1 deficiencies (Defense Daily, Sept. 18).
With the KC-46 coming to base in 2023 and the KC-10s leaving around the same time, Travis is about to undergo a transition of equipment reminiscent of when the C-141 Starlifter military transport aircraft was retired and the C-17 Globemaster was brought into the fleet, said Col. Jeff Nelson, the 60th Air Mobility Wing commander.
“There has been a period of time between that happening [the C-141 to C-17 transition] and this happening [the transition to KC-46],” he said in an Aug. 12 interview at Travis. As a result, the knowledge and expertise on transitions has diminished within the active duty force than if the KC-46 had come in sooner, he noted.
Travis is not only working on building a new hangar and associated facilities for the aircraft, but must renovate its squadron operations facilities to integrate active duty and reserve personnel, Nelson said.
“Part of the KC-46 direction from the Secretary of the Air Force level was total force integration,” he said.
The wing will soon have to make decisions about how to transition its people and make requirements for future personnel, Nelson added. “At what point do we send people to go learn how to be a maintainer in a KC-46 and learn how to fly a KC-46?”
A significant change for refuelers at that point will be the removal of the flight engineer position, Stubbendorff said. The KC-46’s upgraded avionics systems mean it only needs a crew of three: two pilots and a boom operator.
“As you upgrade the avionics systems, it’s easier for the pilots to run things,” Stubbendorff noted. “Or the jet runs them on its own.”
The Extenders will be missed, he said. “Every receiver out there, they prefer a KC-10 to any other tanker, just for what we can offer, what we can provide,” he said, adding that it will take two KC-46 aircraft to carry the same amount of gas or cargo as a KC-10.
“Now, they’re going to be more effective, more efficient, burn less gas and those things, but it’s still two airplanes, two crews, two parking spots,” he added.
That being said, “it’s always good to get new aircraft, new weapon systems, new technology [and] new avionics,” Stubbendorff added. “As long as we’re getting new airplanes and pushing the boundaries … as long as we’re making our America’s airpower stronger, more effective, more efficient, and continue to project that across the world, that’s a good thing.”
Meanwhile, the KC-10s at Travis are scheduled to receive “Mode 5” upgrades as the base awaits the KC-46, Stubbendorff said. The modifications include: An upgrade to the KC-10’s Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system – the primary means of aircraft identification, used for command and control, during air defense operations – increased anti-spoofing capabilities; a new APX-119 Mode 5-capable transponder; new KIV-77 Mode 5 crypto applique, which will replace the aircraft’s current KIV-119 applique; upgraded avionics; removal of the existing IFF control panel; and minor wiring changes.
McConnell AFB in Kansas was the first base to receive KC-46 aircraft beginning this past January, followed swiftly by Altus AFB, Oklahoma, which will host the first Pegasus formal training unit with the 97th Air Mobility Wing. Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire, was the third base to receive the KC-46 and is the first National Guard base to receive the new aircraft. Next will be the Air Force Reserve’s Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. After that, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey will be the first associate base to experience the transition of removing KC-10s and receiving KC-46 aircraft, then Travis will follow.
Travis officials have begun preparations to welcome the new aircraft on base. At the center of new construction plans is a new three-bay hangar, which will take the place of five current buildings, displace residents and include a renovation of the base’s runways, said Senior Master Sgt. Keith Bennett, 60th Air Mobility Wing KC-46 program integration office superintendent, in an Aug. 12 interview.
There are currently 10 construction projects related to the KC-46 beddown project, and six are designated as military construction projects, while four are considered “sustainment/restoration/modernization” projects. Those include the renovation squadron operations facilities to better integrate active duty and reserve airmen together along with the new hangar, Bennett said.
The three-bay hangar is “our pinnacle project,” Bennett said. It will have enough space for maintainers to work on several aircraft at one time, and be able to store up to three aircraft if need be.
Travis requested a reprogramming approval to move ahead with construction of the three-bay hangar, with an award date anticipated in mid-November and the goal to begin hangar construction by March 2020, said Capt. Lyndsey Horn, chief of public affairs for the 60th Air Mobility Wing, in an email to Defense Daily.
The base will also build a new state-of-the-art regional maintenance training facility, complete with interactive training aides, along with workable flight surfaces, landing gear, wheels, and a hanging engine, Bennett said.
A “KC-10 guy by heart,” Bennett expressed excitement for the KC-46 beddown plans to take fruition and for the base to welcome the new aerial refueler.
“I don’t want to see that plane go,” he said. However, “it’s old; it’s become expensive; the parts pull is nearly non-existent.”
He noted that bases like Travis and McGuire — that are losing the KC-10 and receiving the KC-46 — were in a “perfect storm of, we need to shed some cost and hey, we’ve got two bases already set up for the most part to receive these planes that will probably do a really good job of receiving them, because they already had commercially derivative aircraft there.”