It can be difficult to prioritize strategic depth and accelerate readiness when the aircraft you depend on to carry out your mission is more than 60 years old. But that’s just what the aircraft maintainers at the 914th Air Refueling Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York, do on a daily basis with the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker.
“Every day we make history keeping these aircraft in the air because of the men and women of the 914th Maintenance Group,” said Chief Master Sgt. Patrick Martin, 914th Maintenance Squadron superintendent.
The KC-135 first entered the Air Force inventory in 1957. It replaced the propeller-powered KC-97, which could no longer keep up with the Air Force’s new jet fighters and bombers. The 914th is still flying one of the Stratotankers built in 1957 among its fleet of eight KC-135s.
Needless to say, maintaining an aircraft that has been around for 63 years and has logged millions of flying hours has its challenges. But the Reserve Citizen Airmen assigned to the 914th Maintenance Group take great pride in keeping these old birds flying safely in the air.
A major component of the aircraft maintenance regimen is the isochronal inspection. Every 24 months, the Stratotankers get a complete, top-to-bottom examination of the entire airframe and all systems to increase their overall performance and safety.
“This is not the only inspection for the aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Carter, 914th Maintenance Squadron ISO Dock inspector. “There are through-flights, pre-flights, a 12-month inspection and a variety of inspections by all of the specialty career fields that work on the aircraft; but this is the big one – the 24-month or phase inspection.”
The ISO Dock process actually begins on the flight line, with crew chiefs opening up floor boards, doing engine runs and performing other “pre-dock” procedures. The tanker is then towed in and washed completely. The next step is to remove panels and start the top-to-bottom inspection.
“We identify all the maintenance issues and discrepancies,” Carter said. “We’ll go ahead and order parts if required. If there are repairs needed, some are done locally. We have all of our parts and we fix it and then put it back together. Other repairs that can’t be handled at the base will be fixed at a major maintenance facility.
“We take it outside once repairs are made and do a post-dock,” he said. “That’s where we do all of our operations checks, making sure everything we did works properly.”
Martin explained that there are Airmen with more than a dozen Air Force specialty codes involved in the ISO process.
“There’s a team of 40 to 50 professional maintenance personnel inspecting, repairing or replacing components on the aircraft,” he said. “It can take anywhere from 40 to 65 days. This is something done fleetwide with the KC-135s. We will rip this airplane apart and inspect it, mostly for corrosion, which is a big thing we are finding on this aircraft after 60 years of service.”
Lt. Col. Albert Knapp, 914th Maintenance Group commander, said he is amazed at the problems the ISO Dock team finds and fixes.
“They find corrosion, cracks and dents, bad control surface cables, twisted tubing, faulty wiring, and corroded trunnions,” he said. “They find and fix things others have overlooked and haven’t fixed. After we have worked on them, I am confident our pilots are flying the best maintained fleet in the force, bar none.”
The 914th ARW has been flying and maintaining KC-135 Stratotankers since mid-2017 when it acquired a new airframe and mission. Before the conversion, the 914th operated the C-130 and had a military transport mission.
“I’m super proud of everyone who comes out here every weekend and every day of the week,” Martin said. “We’ve come leaps and bounds since the conversion – everybody in the squadron and group have made this process what it is today.”
The Air Force plans to keep the KC-135R in service until 2040. It’s not known currently whether the 914th will continue flying the Stratotanker or will switch to a newer refueler like the KC-46 Pegasus. Whatever happens, the maintainers at Niagara will keep their KC-135s flying safely into the future. #ReserveReady
(Borys is assigned to the 914th ARW public affairs office.) ■