How an Eisenhower-era jet refuels an F-22
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — The F-22 Raptor may be the most technologically sophisticated fighter plane ever to serve in combat. But when it gets thirsty, it relies on a plane that has been doing its job since the Eisenhower administration.
In September, the Air Force KC-135 tankers deployed to Guam for the Valiant Shield exercise stayed busy, meeting the mid-air refueling needs of Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft.
The eight-day exercise included 18,000 servicemembers on land, sea and in the air. U.S. pilots engaged in scenarios that required inter-service operations against U.S. counterparts, who played the role of enemy forces.
On Sept. 19, a tanker from the 909th Refueling Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, headed up to an altitude of 21,000 feet north of Guam and helped refuel the “good guys” – in this case, a Raptor squadron.
A KC-135 can hold up to 200,000 gallons of transferable fuel, according to Air Force figures. That’s enough to fully refuel the internal tanks of 11 Raptors.
The Air Force has 414 KC-135 tankers in its active duty, national guard and reserve arsenal, all of which were delivered between 1956 and 1965, according to a service fact sheet.
Over the years, they have received multiple upgrades to their avionics, engines and other critical systems.
With a speed of 530 mph at 30,000 feet and a ceiling of 50,000 feet, KC-135s allow aircraft to refuel without slowing down or losing altitude. They don’t require many crewmembers: in most instances, they use only a pilot, copilot and a boom operator.
The operator crawls into a pod at the back of the KC-135 and then extends the boom to an arriving aircraft. Once the receiving aircraft is close enough, the pilot opens a port to receive fuel from the boom.
Although the KC-135 is expected to continue flying for the foreseeable future, a replacement is in the works. The KC-46A, which is now in testing, is designed for both refueling and medical evacuations.