Politics & Government

U.S. Air Force's tanker fleet showing its age

In the skies over Kansas at 21,000 feet on a recent morning, two McConnell Air Force Base crews were on an air-to-air refueling training mission in KC-135 tankers.

The Stratotankers — often called "gas stations in the sky" — fly just 50 feet from another aircraft when they offload fuel.

"It's basically a ballet act," Lt. Tim Hickman, a KC-135 navigator, said from his post inside the cockpit.

On this day, however, a hydraulic fluid leak would not allow the boom to operate properly. That part of the training mission was scrubbed.

The problem typifies a growing issue with the Air Force's tankers: More and more, the fleet shows its age.

Plans to replace the planes have been delayed by contract disputes and political squabbling.

When the fleet will be replaced – and by whom – will have a huge impact on Wichita.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are battling for an initial $35 billion aerial refueling contract. A Boeing win could mean jobs for Wichita.

McConnell Air Force Base, which has a $408.8 million economic impact on the community, is the largest tanker base in the world. By September, the number of tankers there will grow to 48.

To read the complete article, visit www.kansas.com.

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