JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J.—A KC-10 Extender took off into the dark and rainy New Jersey sky after a short weather delay to link up with F-22s flying over the Atlantic Ocean, marking the end of an era for its unit.
The June 30 flight for the massive tanker from the 2nd Air Refueling Squadron was a historic one for the Air Force’s second-oldest squadron. It was the last time a KC-10 assigned to the 2nd ARS would fly. The 305th Mobility Wing already has sent five of the tankers to the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., in preparation for the KC-46’s arrival in November.
The remaining Extenders from the 2nd ARS have shifted to the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron within the 305th Air Mobility Wing, which will become a “super” squadron until the last KC-10s at McGuire retire in 2024. The base will bring on 24 KC-46s. McGuire had 32 KC-10s before retirements began.
“Today, we’re officially a KC-46 squadron,” 2nd ARS Commander Lt. Col. Nicholas Arthur said in a July 1 interview, with the image of a KC-10 still on his uniform name patch. “Our folks that are still qualified on the KC-10 will continue to fly with the other KC-10 squadron until we send them all to training or they get other assignments.”
The process started in earnest about six months ago at McGuire, with the first crews heading to Altus Air Force Base, Okla., to train on the KC-46. There are now six crew members at McGuire qualified on the KC-46, with the number expected to grow before the Pegasus arrives in November.
In the meantime, the squadron is revising its processes and programs to shift from Extender operations to the Pegasus. The squadron’s readiness status dropped, taking the 2nd ARS off of the list of units that could deploy. However, since tankers are in such high demand, remaining qualified air crews will still deploy with the 32nd.
The Airmen were originally expecting to stop deploying in the spring to prepare for the conversion, but operational requirements increased with the Afghanistan drawdown and other combatant command needs, so these deployments will continue until October.
“Until we send our folks to training, we’re still going to actively deploy them as KC-10 Airmen because our requirements as a community don’t really go away. Every jet we send to the boneyard, our requirements drop a little bit, but there’s still a heavy demand for tankers, and that doesn’t change just because we’re going to convert, and we just have to learn to adapt and make it work,” Arthur said.
To be able to fly the KC-46, pilots head to Altus or another KC-46 location for three months of qualification training, with another one to two months of additional mission qualification training at McGuire. The New Jersey base will bring some instructors in to help, but as the training requirements increase, those training TDYs will continue.
With the initial jets, the 2nd ARS expects a lot of local flying, oceanic training, and plugging in with exercises “here and there” to get experience.
On the maintenance side, the 605th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron has become a sort of “hybrid” unit with an initial cadre of 41 Airmen being trained on the Pegasus, said Master Sgt. Sydney Melton, the 605th AMXS KC-46 Pegasus lead production superintendent. These Airmen go through 16 to 30 days of “Type 1” training at Altus, with different training times for different Air Force Specialty Codes, and then another 30 days of “on the job” training where they are actually turning wrenches on the aircraft, he said.
Much of the cadre volunteered for this opportunity, said Master Sgt. Gary Chappell, the 605th AMXS KC-10 Extender lead production superintendent. For most of the Airmen in the unit, the KC-10 has been their airframe for the bulk of their careers. So despite the excitement around the KC-46, transitioning to a new, Boeing 767-based aircraft will be challenging.
“A tanker is still a tanker, so some things will translate over, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about a generational asset. That’s gonna be different,” he said.
The KC-46 has new technology in the cockpit and throughout the jet, which will be a change for Airmen used to operating on lower-tech legacy tankers. For communications/navigation maintainers, that will mean some more complicated work.
“There’s going to be some challenges there, but we’re ready for it,” Melton said.
A good thing for McGuire is that multiple bases have already shifted from legacy tankers to the KC-46, and the units communicate their own lessons learned to make the stand-up go more smoothly.
“Every base, both active and Reserve, is doing everything they can to set us up for success, so it’s pretty cool to see that. A lot of the times, it’s sink or swim. Figure it out. Make the mission happen,” Melton said. “So, to see that we’re getting that kind of support from other bases that don’t owe us anything is pretty awesome.”
In the past few months, maintainers have watched five KC-10s leave to go to the boneyard after years at McGuire.
“It’s kind of an eerie feeling to know it’s going and never coming back,” Chappell said.
There are some problem children at the base, though, that some maintainers may not be sad to see go—jets that have provided some frustration to Airmen, so they might like to see them bumped up the list for retirement. But, the maintainers didn’t want to publicly name any of these tails.
“It’s strange, but change is good,” Melton said. “So, we’re working hard to make sure we’re prepped for the incoming jet. A lot of pieces are moving. For the most part, everybody’s working together as a team to make it happen and hoping we get our jets.”
The June 30 flight was originally planned to have a route recognizing the squadron’s more than 100-year-old history. Dating back to the U.S. Signal Corps in 1915, the squadron’s lineage includes service in World War I and enduring the Bataan Death March in World War II. The 2nd ARS was activated in 1989 at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., under Strategic Air Command before moving to McGuire under Air Mobility Command. The KC-10’s mission originally was going to include formation work over Barksdale as a nod to that history, before weather got in the way and that was scrubbed.
The day after the flight, the unit hosted a small celebration of the KC-10’s history with toasts, swag such as T-shirts and coozies, and sharing of stories of the KC-10’s history at McGuire.
The ceremony also held special significance for the small cadre of flight engineers who serve on the KC-10. The Extender is unique among the Air Force’s refueling fleet, in that it is the only one of the tankers to have these Airmen on board in what some called the most important crew member on the jet.
Flight engineers also serve on other aircraft, such as C-17s, C-5s, and helicopters, so the Airmen who served on the KC-10 at McGuire will either stay with the remaining Extender squadron or transfer to other aircraft.
“The flight engineer, in my opinion, is probably the most crucial position on that jet just to make it be able to go do its mission,” Arthur said.
The new KC-46, with its advanced avionics, datalinks, situational awareness, and defensive capabilities, is a major change for the tanker crews. This will require new training on the ground, in the air, and in simulators.
“The shift to this airplane is kind of a mental shift for Mobility Air Forces in general, specifically the tanker community, and how we point toward the future fight and better integrate with the [Combat Air Forces],” Arthur said.
The change is bittersweet, though, with McGuire, and then the broader Air Force, losing a tanker that has been in service since 1981.
“It’s a first love type thing. I understand the decisions that were made and why they were made, and, you know, it is an expensive, old airplane to operate,” he said. “But yeah, you know, you’re always going to love your first airplane.”