After years of development and delays, two KC-46A Pegasus tankers arrived at McConnell Air Force Base, bringing with them a face familiar to Derby.
The aircraft arrived at a cold and windy Wichita around 2 p.m. after a flight from Everett, Washington, where Boeing assembles the tankers.
“Thank you to the thousands of citizen airmen, families, friends, and civilians, who everyday balance work, family, and your civilian careers,” said Lt. Col. Phil Heseltine at the arrival ceremony. “We could not do any of this without you.”
Heseltine, a Derby resident, is commander of the reserve 931st Air Refueling Wing, one of three wings at McConnell. As a “total force installation,” the base also houses the active-duty 22nd Air Refueling Wing and the Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing.
McConnell was the first base to receive the new tankers and is expected to receive two more during a weeklong period starting Jan. 28. There will then be a two-week pause as other bases, such as Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, receive KC-46s.
After the pause, approximately three aircraft will arrive each month until the first order of 18 is complete. McConnell expects to ultimately house 36 of the tankers.
The KC-46 was selected in 2011 to displace the Cold War-era KC-135, which officials say could remain in use until 2040 or longer. Both models are tankers, large aircraft that refuel others during flight.
Sixteen resources were built at McConnell last year in preparation for the new KC-46s, including a training fuselage. Construction costs for the resources totaled $267 million.
As tankers arrive, they have to go through a 75-day “familiarization period,” Heseltine said. Following will be a six-month test and evaluation period, he said, in which area residents can expect to start seeing the planes above.
Boeing executive Leanne Caret, a Derby native, flew to Wichita as part of an official party for the KC-46’s arrival ceremony.
Caret, a Derby High graduate, became Boeing’s CEO and president of defense, space and security in February 2016.
She earned a bachelor’s in business administration from Kansas State University and has a master’s in the same field from Wichita State University.
“I grew up watching KC-135s flying around," Caret said. “It's perfectly fitting that the first KC-46 would end up coming home to McConnell.”
Speaking to a hangar full of McConnell personnel, staff, and community members, she expressed gratitude to the US Air Force for their partnership in developing the KC-46.
A few weeks prior, Caret said she sent a message to 150,000 Boeing employees sharing the news of the KC-46’s then-approaching arrival date.
“I’d like to share a few [responses] with you today because there’s no better way to convey what it means for us at Boeing and our supplier partners to deliver this aircraft than through the words of who built her,” Caret said.
“A delivery operations manager wrote: please make sure the Air Force pilots flying my baby know how to take great care of them,’” she said.
“Of that, there is no doubt.”
The KC-46 is derived from Boeing’s 767 commercial airframe. At just over 165 feet in length, the new tanker is longer and has a wider wingspan than the KC-135.
Besides greater dimensions, the new tanker also has a greater capacity for passengers, cargo, and fuel. The KC-46 holds 212,000 pounds of fuel, which is 12,500 more than the KC-135.
With increased ability to communicate and evacuate medical patients, the aircraft is often referred to by officials as “not just a tanker but a weapons system.”
A key feature that sets the KC-46 apart from the KC-135 is its remote vision system, which utilizes cameras and sensors. The technology allows boom operators to sit in the cockpit with the rest of the crew, instead of at the rear as with traditional tankers.
Deficiencies have been detected in the system, but Boeing has agreed to pay to fix them.
Heather Wilson, secretary of the US Air Force, said one issue was related to a “glint” in the tanker’s cameras when it flies directly towards or away from the sun during bright sunlight.
“All they have to do, operationally, is just turn a little bit away from the sun. It’s not that big of deal,” Wilson said. “But think about this: The hardest time to tank is in the dark and in clouds. So when it’s hardest to tank, this aircraft is actually better than what we currently have.”
Officials have not stated when the aircraft will first operate in an active mission.
A Derby student received one of the biggest scholarships in Kansas.
Sarah Buie, 17, was one of three students selected to win a Harry Gore Memorial Scholarship to Wichita State University. The $64,000 scholarship is awarded annually to freshmen entering the university who display “outstanding potential for leadership.”
“I didn’t even think I would make it to semifinals, so to find out I won the whole thing was really shocking,” Buie said. “I honestly thought it was a joke when they first called me.”
Buie was selected from a pool of 607 candidates, who competed to display their leadership potential at the Distinguished Scholarship Invitational. She was selected for the scholarship among 82 semifinalists and 12 finalists.
To be eligible for this year’s invitational, students needed to have a minimum 27 ACT score or 1280 SAT score, as well as a 3.5 unweighted GPA or a top-10 ranking in their class.
Buie attended Derby High School her freshman and sophomore years but lived at Fort Hays State her junior year to participate in the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science program.
“I definitely think I learned a lot of leadership skills there,” she said.
While studying at Fort Hays, she served in the school’s residence hall association and was the elected president of her residence hall.
“That just gave me a lot of opportunities on a college campus to be active, and I think that helped me once I went into my interview for this scholarship,” Buie said.
For her senior year, she has been taking credits online and in person at Butler and Cowley county community colleges. She expects to graduate from high school in May.
Currently, Buie is a declared elementary education major, but with 64 college credits under her belt, she anticipates taking on a second major in psychology.
Buie plans to live on campus during her time at Wichita State, where she looks forward to joining the Student Ambassadors Society and the school’s residence hall association, as well as participating in psychology research related to education.
Outside of the classroom, Buie volunteers as a children’s ministries teacher for Aviator Church. She also volunteers around 20 hours a week in classrooms at Mulvane Grade School and Swaney Elementary.
Theodore and Ralph Gore established the Harry Gore Memorial Scholarship in 1952 in memory of their father, Harry Gore, a Russian immigrant who highly prioritized education.