HomeNewsFeaturesDisplay

Anything but a tanker: the first KC-135 story

The first KC-135 Stratotanker comes out of the factory in Renton, Wash., next to the KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1956. This pairing symbolized the new age of jet tankers which eventually replaced the rotary wing aircraft to keep up with faster fighter aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

The first KC-135 Stratotanker comes out of the factory in Renton, Washington, next to the KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1956. This pairing symbolized the new age of jet tankers which eventually replaced the rotary wing aircraft to keep up with faster fighter aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

The first KC-135 Stratotanker has been at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., since its retirement in 1998. Aircraft 55-3118 spent its active duty career escorting fighter aircraft and transporting very important people all over the world. (Courtesy photo)

The first KC-135 Stratotanker has been at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, since its retirement in 1998. Aircraft 55-3118 spent its active duty career escorting fighter aircraft and transporting very important people all over the world. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Three static displays of retired aircraft lie exhibited at the entrance of McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. Each model symbolizes a different phase in the base's history.

While many members of McConnell drive past the displays on a daily basis, they may not know the history of the tanker standing guard.

Aircraft 55-3118, once nicknamed "The City of Renton," first rolled out of Boeing Co.'s Renton, Washington, plant in 1956. The first KC-135 Stratotanker never flew a refueling mission; instead, it was used for many other diverse missions.

"Our most important mission was escorting fighters," said retired Lt. Col. Ted Buck. "We flew with squadrons at a time from state side to Vietnam and back."

"The City of Renton" was retrofitted with bunks, seats, tables, carpeting, soundproofing, and communication equipment after initial testing was complete to fit its new mission.

"Every 90 days we had to spit-shine that plane in the hangars," said retired Master Sgt. Gene De Forest. "Everyone below captain or master sergeant had to polish. The rule was 'if you don't polish, you don't fly.'"

Command and control was the next mission of 55-3118, it was as a modern satellite for tactical air command.

"We're talking 45 or 50 years ago," said Buck. At the time, the capabilities were amazing. We kept radio contact with fighter aircraft no matter where they went. We were very useful and needed."

It was once used to carry Dr. Henry Kissinger, preceding President Richard Nixon's trip to China.

"The White House needed a plane that could take Kissinger where he needed to go without the press knowing what he was doing, so they called us," said Buck. "That was the first diplomatic contact with China since World War II."

The tanker was brought to McConnell after its retirement in 1998, where it was restored with all its original parts.

"The City of Renton" will continue to greet the past, present, and future generations of refuelers, except now it has come to be called "The Keeper of The Plains" to reflect its location in Kansas.

The Air Force's KC-97 Stratofreighter was introduced to the new KC-135 in 1956, and the KC-135 would eventually replace it.

And now the KC-46 Pegasus will slowly start replacing the KC-135, just like it replaced its predecessor. The life cycle of this KC-135 is complete now.

"This aircraft is the most beautiful display in the Air Force," said Buck.