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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: KC-135 supports Gulf War contingencies

F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft are refueled by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft. (Department of Defense photo by Tech. Sgt. Perry Heimer)

F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft are refueled by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft. (Department of Defense photo by Tech. Sgt. Perry Heimer)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- (Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight in August 2016.)

In 1990, KC-135 Stratotankers answered a new call for help during Operation Desert Shield, which marked the beginning of continuous U.S. Air Force contingencies for the next 25 years.

Stephen Yavornitzki, former KC-135 boom operator during the time of the conflict, remembered the tankers initially being used to transport cargo, but the mission soon required hours of aerial refueling support as well.

"[The KC-135] was the linchpin of the fight," said Yavornitzki. "Without fuel, fighters are inoperable."

Aerial refueling missions typically lasted about three hours for the boom operator and the rest of his team, during which the aircrew worked to keep aircraft such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-111 Aardvark in the air.

"We [refueled] them both pre and post-fight," he said. "Once they would go and drop their ordinance, they would come back up, get their fuel and head back out to the fight."

The  U.S. Air Force aircraft successfully destroyed key enemy radars, command centers, air defenses and various air fields throughout the region.

Although these operations were not a direct result of the tankers, the KC-135s were busy keeping other aircraft in the air and enabling them to complete the mission. 

"The KC-135 was the workhorse, the backbone, of the fight," said Yavornitzki.

According to a 2011 Air Mobility Command article, over the course of the operation, tankers completed more than 4,900 sorties in 19,700 flying hours.  Their crews off-loaded more than 28.2 million gallons of fuel to 14,588 receivers.