McConnell KC-46 Crews Shaping the Future of Refueling

Airmen with the 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron tow a new KC-46A Pegasus aircraft into Hangar 1126 at McConnell AFB, Kan., on Jan. 25, 2019. Air Force photo by A1C Alan Ricker.

LE BOURGET, France—Despite extended delays and some continuing problems, the Air Force’s KC-46 operating base is now flying a steady stream of firsts and setting milestones.

Last week, the KC-46 made its international debut at the Paris Air Show. To mark the occasion, crews onboard the trans-Atlantic flight from McConnell AFB, Kan., to Ramstein AB, Germany, made filet mignon on board. On the way back this week, the KC-46 crews will mark the occasion by taking on space-available passengers for the first time in the Pegasus program.

In early June, the 344th Air Refueling Squadron at McConnell began the initial operational test and evaluation for the aircraft and the base’s six crews are learning what the service’s newest tanker is capable of, Lt. Col. Wesley Spurlock, the squadron commander, told Air Force Magazine.

During the testing, members of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center will monitor flights and operations, checking through test points to evaluate how the aircraft performs and how it will operate in the future.

For the crews, this means the flight operations are a “mix of everything,” including international flights such as the recent trip to Paris via Germany, and a planned flight to the Pacific, along with cargo runs and the first passenger flights, Spurlock said. The aircraft has been flying in formations, practicing tactical maneuvering, and, of course, refueling.

The squadron is making a “really robust flight profile …, so that we are really ramping up and getting the exposure for our instructors and aircraft commanders, and really our whole crew,” Spurlock said. He added, “Our aircraft commanders are reporting after every single flight what they did, what they planned to do, lessons learned, issues they’ve had.”

Every time the squadron flies, AFOTEC will “jump on with us” and go through the test points they need, he said. The daily flights aren’t dictated by what AFOTEC needs, but rather they go along with what aircrews are planning.

“Our mission is the test point. We don’t change our sorties, per se, to meet the test points, they change test points to meet our sorties,” Spurlock said.

McConnell’s 344th ARS also is in the process of building up its first seven aircrews, with the expectation to reach 24 by the end of the year. The Reserve 924th Air Refueling Squadron is planning to get to 10 aircrews.

Because the KC-46 provides more than just refueling—it has sensors, datalink connections, air defenses—the squadron wanted to pick pilots with diverse backgrounds to bring a different mindset to the mission. So far, new KC-46 pilots have experience flying the F-16, B-1, B-52, E-3, E-8, C-17, and C-130, along with KC-135s and KC-10s.

The KC-46’s capabilities are “something we’ve never seen on a tanker,” Spurlock said. In addition to refueling, the tanker can help with targeting information and threat assessments. It’s also designed with countermeasures, a first on a tanker, to get the fuel closer to the fight.

“We’re happy to break out of the norm of what the tanker is for. … It’s why we have F-16 and B-1 guys that understand the different parts of this, as we put all of this together it becomes a new thing,” he said.

The initial cadre of pilots went through Boeing training and got 767-type ratings, but that only scratched the training surface. “It wasn’t salient to the military-type of flying that we do. We’ve kind of had to push through that,” Spurlock said.

The 344th is also close to standing up the first seven boom operators, and the plan is to reach 12 by the end of the year, with a final end state of 30 boom operators. The squadron did pull experienced KC-10 and KC-135 boom operators to join, but also looked at other career fields such as sensor operators to find “as diverse a group as possible,” said SMSgt. Lindsay Moon, superintendent of the 344th ARS.

Through testing, the aircrews have been able to tell the difference between the KC-46 and legacy airplanes. For example, the KC-46 is more stable during refueling than the KC-135. When attached to a large aircraft such as the C-17, the Stratotanker would get “pushed around,” Moon said. In the KC-46, the aircrews can’t tell the difference as much between heavy receivers and smaller fighters.

For the pilots, the aircraft is simply more modern than KC-135s and KC-10s. It’s a fully electronic “glass” cockpit with automatic landing and automatic braking. “There’s a lot of bells and whistles, it’s very user friendly … It’s designed to be a modern airplane,” Spurlock said.

For the boom operators, the nature of the KC-46’s system is simply more comfortable. In the KC-135, operators lay on their stomach for extended periods of time looking out the window to the receiver, Moon said. It got to the point where long-term operators would experience back pain and other physiological issues. A McConnell boom operator in 2018 won the Air Force’s Spark Tank competition for inventing a platform for the KC-135 station to help alleviate pain.

In the KC-46, the operator is sitting upright looking at large screens to operate the boom. “It is bearable to sustain operations as long as possible, and being comfortable, and doing it while not feeling fatigued,” Moon said.

The remote vision system has a heads-up display built in to give the operators live readings of data such as the amount of fuel left to be offloaded, which is a “big situational awareness tool,” Moon said.

There are large, bright LED lights on the boom itself, visible day and night, that makes receiving easier, said Spurlock, who has flown as a pilot on both the receiving and offloading end.

“It’s kind of like a fifth-generation tanker,” he said. “It’s going to be a big deal.”

Getting to this point has meant long delays for crews at McConnell as they waited for the aircraft to arrive. For example, the base hosted a ribbon cutting for a maintenance hangar in October 2017, more than 14 months before the aircraft actually arrived. McConnell now has six aircraft, and it’s waiting on the seventh to arrive, which is tentatively scheduled for the end of the month.

The Air Force and Boeing are working together on determining a schedule for the already delivered aircraft to return to the company for an in-depth sweep for foreign object debris, such as tools from the factory that fell into areas of the jet during production. The aircraft that have been delivered have been deemed safe to fly, but still have remaining areas that need to be checked. These sweeps are expected to be finished next month.

At McConnell, maintenance crews are working through this issue and “when it happens, it happens, and we work around it,” Spurlock said.

“At the end of the day, we’re just flying what we have. We step out to the jet and, whatever the tail number is, we fly it,” Spurlock said. While he did not discuss specific mission capability rates, he said, “Every time I’ve stepped to fly, I’ve flown.”

Additionally, the Air Force and Boeing are working through three “category one” deficiencies—two focused on the RVS and one on the boom itself—with a fix not expected to be implemented for three to four years.

These flights and the ongoing IOT&E process give McConnell a unique mission. The KC-135 was first delivered in the 1950s, and KC-10s in the early 1980s. The airmen who flew, maintained, and operated the refueling booms at the time formed the processes and tactics that largely have stuck around for decades. This same process is now beginning with the 344th.

“We have a unique opportunity to leave our mark on the Air Force in the future,” Spurlock said.