Four engines or two is the major way to tell the difference between which McConnell Air Force Base’s aircraft you see in the skies around Derby.
At a distance in the sky, McConnell’s tankers look like twins. But truth be told, these are distant relatives from the same family, despite sporting similar paint schemes and configurations.
The four-engined KC-135R Stratotanker has been operating daily from the McConnell flightline for years, and serving the nation’s air refueling needs worldwide for decades.
But a new relative moved in at McConnell in 2019, with the arrival of the KC-46A Pegasus. Sporting two engines, the KC-46 is the Air Force’s newest tanker aircraft.
McConnell is gradually transitioning to the KC-46 outright, and currently operates two full flying squadrons with a combined 22 of these aircraft, while also operating one squadron of KC-135s.
Both aircraft are products of the same manufacturer, at the same flightline, with the same missions – air refueling, aeromedical evacuation and airlift.
The KC-135 Stratotanker provides the core aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 60 years. This unique asset enhances the Air Force’s capability to accomplish its primary mission of global reach. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.
Four turbofan engines, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, power the KC-135 to takeoffs at gross weights of up to 322,500 pounds. A cargo deck above the refueling system can hold a mixed load of passengers and cargo. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo.
Nearly all internal fuel can be pumped through the flying boom, the KC-135’s primary fuel transfer method. One crew member, known as the boom operator, is stationed in the rear of the plane and controls the boom during in-flight air refueling.
A special shuttlecock-shaped drogue attached to and trailing behind the flying boom may be used to refuel aircraft fitted with probes. Some aircraft have been configured with the multipoint refueling system, which consists of special pods mounted on the wingtips. These KC-135s are capable of refueling two receiver aircraft at the same time.
Air Mobility Command manages an inventory of 396 Stratotankers, of which the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard fly 243 aircraft in support of AMC’s mission.
But the Air Force’s tanker fleet is aging, as the first KC-135A was delivered to the Air Force back in 1957. The first phase of recapitalizing the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet is the KC-46A Pegasus. 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.
At full operational capability, the KC-46A will be able to refuel most fixed-wing, receiver-capable aircraft. The KC-46A is equipped with a refueling boom driven by a fly-by-wire control system, and is capable of fuel offload rates required for large aircraft. Its hose and drogue system adds additional mission capability that is independently operable from the refueling boom system.
The aircraft’s fuel can be pumped through the boom, drogue and wing aerial refueling pods.
The KC-46A can accommodate a mixed load of passengers, aeromedical evacuation and cargo capabilities. Two high-bypass turbofans power the KC-46A to takeoff at gross weights up to 415,000 pounds. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the aircraft can carry a palletized load of up to 65,000 pounds of cargo. The KC-46A can carry up to 18 cargo pallets. Seat tracks and the onboard cargo handling system make it possible to simultaneously carry palletized cargo and passenger seats in a variety of combinations. The KC-46A is also equipped with a number of self-protection, defensive and communication features making it more survivable in a contested environment.
The current KC-46A production contract will provide Air Mobility Command with an inventory of 179 KC-46A tankers. The first KC-46A was delivered to McConnell on Jan. 25,
2019. Since then, McConnell has been putting the aircraft through its paces, building a base of knowledge and experience on the capabilities of this new aircraft, as the lead KC-46 base.
Just this year, McConnell has led three KC-46 Employment Capability exercises overseas, testing the aircraft’s deployed capabilities, in Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East.
And come Sept. 24 and 25, the public will get the opportunity to step inside and tour some of McConnell’s KC-135s and KC-46s during the 2022 Frontiers in Flight Airshow.
Selfies in and around the aircraft are optional.