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Fairchild AFB Celebrates The 64th Anniversary Of The First KC-135 Mission

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

This date in history, 1956…the first version of the plane that’s now based at Fairchild Air Force Base flew its first mission. That plane is the KC 135. It’s like a big flying gas tank. It refuels tankers, bombers and other Air Force and Navy planes.

On Monday, Fairchild celebrated the anniversary by inviting reporters to talk with some of the people who fly and maintain the tankers.

KC-135s are not the sexy, sleek jets you see Tom Cruise fly in Top Gun.

And that’s just fine with First Lieutenant Ryan D’Auteuil [pronounced DOUGH-tay]. He’s a co-pilot in the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild.

“The coolest thing, in my opinion, about this aircraft is that nobody, whether strategically, tactically, all over the world, can get their job done without having us there. We are like the quintessential force multiplier. We allow aircrafts to extend their range beyond what they’re normally capable of," he said. "It’s really cool to know that, basically, wherever anything important is happening, there’s probably one of us there.”

There are about 60 KC-135s that are based at Fairchild, though many of them are deployed elsewhere at any one time.

Fairchild has four squadrons that fly and maintain the big tankers. The latest, the 97th  Air Refueling Wing, was formed last year. It’s the squadron where Captain Jeff Keating is based. He says the pandemic has scrambled the schedules for pilots. He used to be up in the air once or twice a week.

“That’s the normal. With Covid-19 it’s been a lot slower," Keating said. "We’ve compartmentalized people, tried to keep people from interacting to prevent possible spread. We’ve been getting one to two flights a month or maybe you’ll get in the sim and not get to fly for a month or two.”

That lack of regular flying, he says, can erode a pilot’s skills. He says he and his colleagues are trying to stay sharp for when they’re needed.

Keating’s squadron is scheduled to deploy at another location next year. Where and when aren’t totally clear yet.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Lt. Ryan D'Auteuil is a co-pilot in Fairchild's 93rd Air Refueling Squadron.

D’Auteuil is a young co-pilot with an old-school attitude. He’s assigned to the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild. He squeezes into the captain’s seat in the cramped cockpit as he welcomes a visitor.

"In the tanker here we typically have an aircraft commander, or captain in the commercial world. The co-pilot, this is normally where I sit, sits in the right seat. And typically our boom operator sits right here," D'Auteuil said.

Up ahead of him is a wall of gauges, most of which are original. Over the years KC-135s have been retrofitted with new technologies, such as GPS, but the cockpits still have the look of a mid-century plane.

The first of these big tankers began flying regularly in 1957. The last was built eight years later. That means every one of the 60 or so tankers based at Fairchild is somewhere between 55 and 63 years old. It’s the oldest of the three tankers in the U.S. Air Force. They don’t have many of the conveniences that are common in newer planes.

“Where most airplanes are throwing on their autopilot within the first few minutes, we are doing a lot of hand flying, a lot of old-school flying and I really enjoy that part of the airplane," he said.

Typically, a three-person crew carries on the plane’s mission. The pilot and co-pilot fly it and the boom operator sits here until he or she is needed in the tail of the aircraft. The boom operator is responsible for ensuring that the fuel in the plane gets into the tank of the receiving plane.  

As old as they are, these tankers still have some life left as the Air Force transitions to a new tanker, the KC-46. But he’s in no hurry to move on.

“I would like to do this assignment. I would like to instruct in this airplane and then I would like to eventually, one day, switch over to the KC-46, but as I’ve told many people, I would fly this airplane for the next 30 years, if I was able. I really do love it to death," he said.

Next year, D’Auteuil expects to go on an extended deployment to someplace other than Fairchild. For now, he’s enjoying flying short term missions, seeing new places and learning more about the plane that’s much older than he is.