Prose & Photography: Nick Moore (others as noted)
Entering the main gate at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, KS, one will drive past a historic aircraft. Serial number 55-3118, a KC-135A nicknamed “The City of Renton," sits proudly on a pedestal. This particular airframe was the very first KC-135A to be built. It seemed only fitting that on January 24, 2019 another historic “first” would happen on the flight line at McConnell.
Wichita and the surrounding communities have a rich history with aviation and a large part of that history has been the partnership with those serving at McConnell. Aerial refueling became a common term in the area in April of 1971 when the 91st Air Refueling Squadron arrived. For nearly 50 years, the iconic KC-135 has been a staple in the skies over Wichita. Now home to the 22d Air Refueling Wing and the 931st Air Refueling Wing, McConnell would soon have a new bird in the sky. For the past four years, noticeable changes have quickly been made to the landscape on base. From facility renovations to new training facilities to, most noticeably, the massive 297,000 square feet of maintenance hangars along the flight line, it has been quite apparent that something big was on the horizon.
Approximately ten years after the United States Air Force began a procurement program to replace some of the oldest KC-135s in the fleet with a new generation tanker, a development contract was awarded to Boeing on February 24, 2011 for the 767-based refueling platform now known as the KC-46A Pegasus. In April of 2014, it was announced that McConnell would be home to the new tanker to work alongside the existing KC-135s. Marred by politics, cost overruns, slower than expected development, and a myriad of other issues, the KC-46 seemed like it would never be delivered. That all changed in early 2019 when the official announcement was made; the Pegasus would soon arrive…
Shortly after 0800, the first two KC-46As departed minutes apart from Paine Field in Everett, WA for their long-awaited delivery to the United States Air Force at McConnell AFB. A lot of planning had gone into the delivery ceremony at McConnell and Mother Nature decided to throw everyone a curveball. Around the same time that the two Pegasus tankers took off in Washington, a rather unexpected snowstorm settled over Wichita. Fortunately, the storm did not last long and a very hardworking airfield snow removal crew was able to get the pavement free of snow just in time for the sun to come out.
Inside one of the massive new KC-46 maintenance hangars sat approximately 3,000 Airmen and invited guests patiently awaiting the arrival of the two tankers. A wide stage complete with two massive screens and a sound system that would rival many outdoor festivals was located in one corner of the hangar and the rest of the space was filled with chairs full of excited people. The screens carried the video feed from the arrival and subsequent taxi and parking.
For half an hour or so leading up to the arrival, two huge jets could be seen loitering in the airspace around the Wichita area; presumably gathering some photos. One aircraft in particular finally quit circling over the city and headed towards the base. It quickly became apparent that this aircraft was on initial for an overhead break. Moments later, the giant KC-46A was directly over the runway and began its left hand turn back to the east, dropping the gear. 180-degrees of turn went by and the Pegasus rolled out on final in a crab due to the stiff Kansas wind for runway 19L. The crew eased it down, planted the upwind main gear, applied some rudder for directional control, and planted the left main gear. Once the nose gear was on the pavement, the reverse thrust was activated and the remaining snow in the grass near the runway was thrown into the air with a roar.
The aircraft taxied off the runway and began its slow journey to parking on the opposite end of the field. The crew taxied the plane to the ramp directly under the arching water spray of the patiently waiting fire trucks, as is tradition for any aviation celebration. Pegasus was then marshaled directly in front of the hangar door that housed the waiting crowd, and directly in between the two current USAF refueling platforms: the KC-135 and the KC-10. As the engines shut down, the ground crew, who had been training prior to the arrival immediately began their work as if they had been doing it for years.
Shortly after the first KC-46 had come to stop, the second and final Pegasus made its approach and landed, signaling the beginning of the ceremony.
Master Sgt. Matt Walters kicked off the ceremony with his opening remarks to the packed house who had just delightedly watched the historical arrival of the two jets on the big screens. Walters, a 20-year veteran maintainer of the legacy KC-135, was easily able to express his excitement to the bustling crowd. The Official Party to the event was as follows:
Hon. Laura Kelly – Governor - Kansas
Hon. Heather Wilson – Secretary of the Air Force
Gen. David Goldfein – Chief of Staff of the Air Force
Gen. Mary Ann Miller – Commander – AMC
Col. Josh Olson – Commander – 22nd ARW
Col. Phil Heseltine – Commander – 931st ARW
Hon. Pat Roberts – Senator - Kansas
Hon. Jerry Moran - Senator - Kansas
Hon. Ron Estes – Kansas 4th Congressional District
Leann Caret – President – Boeing Defense, Space, and Security
All of the speakers had a common theme; a great pride of the history and partnership between McConnell Air Force Base, the City of Wichita, and the State of Kansas. Col. Heseltine spoke about the pride of the 931st ARW, the Reserve members, who are ready to fight at a moment’s notice, and about how the KC-46 will take aerial refueling into the future. Congressman Estes shared his experience flying from Everett to Wichita in the KC-46 prior to the ceremony. Senators Roberts and Moran covered the long history of the KC-46 and their involvement in the program, in addition to the overarching theme of their pride in the men and women serving at McConnell. Ms. Caret (a Derby, KS native and veteran of Boeing Wichita, located across the runway from McConnell) spoke on behalf of all of the people of Boeing who worked on the KC-46 and their delight that Wichita would be the home to the new aircraft for years to come.
Gen. Goldfein delved into the courage and tenacity of the tanker crews through his own experience flying an F-16 during the Gulf War. On one mission, he hit Bingo (very low fuel) and a tanker crew flew dangerously deep into Iraqi territory to refuel his thirsty jet and save the aircraft and crew, certainly not the only time tanker crews have put their safety aside to help a pilot in a critical situation. Secretary Wilson discussed the rich history that Wichita has with the Air Force and left the crowd cheering when she finished her speech by saying, “November Kilo Alpha Whiskey Tango Golf." This was further proof that the Secretary of the Air Force fully understands the mission of the new tanker. As the saying goes, "Nobody kicks a-- without tanker gas."
The final speaker of the afternoon was the Commander of the 22nd ARW, Col. Josh Olson. He discussed the history of aerial refueling and referred to the Airmen in the room and on the base as the “Secret Sauce” that will be the defining legacy. To close out the ceremony, Col. Olson simply stated, “Welcome to the new age of air refueling.”
At that moment, a Team McConnell video was played on the big screen and the giant hangar doors started to rise. Everyone in attendance stood and waited as the brand new KC-46A Pegasus was dramatically revealed, flanked by a KC-135 and KC-10 on either side. The excitement spilled over as the crowd did everything they could to get a better look at the new bird. It was certainly a new day for Team McConnell.
It is no secret that the KC-46 program has had its challenges and setbacks. Even with a few unresolved issues to date with the aircraft, the Airmen surrounding this program at McConnell seem extremely ready to kick the tires and light the fires of their new aircraft. For a group that has been extremely successfully maintaining and operating aircraft that were procured during the Eisenhower administration to fuel the fight, there is no doubt that their success will continue for generations to come.