The Air Force's KC-135 Stratotanker celebrated its 60th anniversary Wednesday, with a ceremony at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas.
"When one looks for a single common denominator for the success we've enjoyed in the Air Force over the last 69 years, it has to be in-flight refueling," said retired Gen. Stephen Lorenz, a former KC-135 pilot, during the ceremony. "I love this great old airplane. It has served our nation well and continues to do so on a daily basis."
The first KC-135 took flight Aug. 31, 1956, during the Eisenhower administration. That same plane is now on static display at McConnell.
Since the 1950s, the Stratotanker has been involved in military operations all over the world, including the current fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
"The KC-135 has been a workhorse for decades," said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, head of Air Forces Central Command, in a statement. "The contributions it makes to today's fight enables our ability to apply persistent pressure against Daesh and ensure security across the area of responsibility. The rapid air mobility mission is crucial to our mission success," he said, using the Arabic name for ISIS.
A modified Boeing 707, the jet-engine tanker was introduced primarily to keep up with B-52 bombers that previously had been relying on propeller-driven refuelers.
Despite the Air Force now having more advanced tankers, such as the KC-10 Extender and brand-new KC-46 Pegasus, the KC-135, which can carry 200,000 pounds of fuel, is still used across the active and reserve components of the Air Force.
"The KC-135 and its air refueling mission has been the cornerstone in nearly every contingency and humanitarian operation around the world," said Jim O'Connell, a historian with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington. "As a testament to the incredible maintenance and support teams, it will likely continue to do so for many years to come."
Although the KC-46 is expected to start arriving at McConnell next year, it will still be a long time before the KC-135 is completely retired. In fact, the Air Force could likely wind up celebrating the 70th anniversary of the aircraft.
"The KC-135 is the backbone of the tanker fleet, but the airmen are the heart of the KC-135," Col. Albert Miller, the 22nd Air Refueling Wing commander, said at the ceremony. "Dedicated aircrews, maintainers and support personnel worked countless hours to ensure the readiness of the KC-135 for the past 60 years and will continue to ensure our nation's global reach for the many years to come."