Boeing’s KC-135 – Born to Die, Destined to Kick Ass

There’s a long-standing nickname associated with the United States Air Force (USAF) fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. The ubiquitous air-to-air refueller celebrates its 60th anniversary of service with the USAF this year, with its crews describing themselves for much of that time as ‘Tanker Toads’.


Pictured here, not looking especially toad-like (USAF)

A cursory search on Google yields a couple of explanations for that nickname. One suggestion is the fact that the aircraft’s refuelling boom operator lies on his or her belly, prone, whilst looking through a window cut into the bottom of the KC-135 as they control the aircraft’s refuelling boom. Lying down prone is said to look similar to the posture of a toad lying on the ground.


The KC-135 Boomer, one of the world’s most stressfully comfortable jobs (Wiki Commons)

Another theory is that toad is an acronym, standing for ‘Temporarily on Active Duty’ – referencing the number of KC-135 pilots who return to the USAF for a brief stint in between their main job of flying with civilian airlines. My own theory was theory was that Toad is a homonym for ‘towed’. As the KC-135 refuelled other aircraft to extend their range over long distances, the receiver was being effectively ‘towed’ to it destination.

The true explanation for ‘Tanker Toad’ however was given to me last weekend by a young KC-135 pilot, who explained that ‘Toad’ is indeed an acronym, dating back to the debut of the Stratotanker’s service with the USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the late 1950s. TOAD stands for ‘Take Off and Die’.


It’s not ‘death by jet exhaust’, but probably should be (Wiki Commons)

Whilst some KC-135s have been lost over 60 years, the aircraft has maintained a pretty good safety record. So why did this tanker pilot give his aircraft and crew such a bleak moniker? The answer lies in the KC-135 being built during the 1950s as an force projector for the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, providing global range to its nuclear bomber fleet. The KC-135’s job was to refuel B-52s on their one-way mission to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the Soviet Union. Taking off with 200,000lbs of fuel (up to 90 tonnes), the KC-135A would meet with B-52s on their journey, and deliver close to their entire fuel load to the bomber. Once the refuelling was completed, the tanker’s crew would have enough fuel to peel away from the B-52 and ditch their aircraft into the water (or on land). The alternative was to bail out and await an individual recovery. Few KC-135 crews believed they’d survive the crash, much less be rescued if they did. Thus was born the Tanker Toad mission – if World War Three began, and the KC-135 crews received the order to scramble their jet, their job would be to Take Off and Die.


Basically, the aviation equivalent of Praying Mantis’ mating (USAF)

At the height of its power during the Eisenhower Administration, Strategic Air Command was not an organisation to do anything by halves, which permitted the construction of 803 KC-135s between 1955 and 1965. It will easily be the world’s most-produced dedicated refuelling aircraft, with a handful finding service with France, Singapore, Chile, and Turkey. Others have found themselves relinquishing their tanking role for reconnaissance duties. Over its history, the aircraft has received updated engines that have improved their fuel burn, and in turn allowed the KC-135 to reserve more fuel for their receivers. Avionics upgrades have been largely minor, although additional navigation systems have eliminated the requirement for the aircraft to carry a navigator. But by and large, the KC-135 still refuels aircraft today in much the same fashion that it did 60 years ago, with an Air Refuelling Operator – known as the ‘boomer’ – lying prone in the tail of the aircraft and looking through a window to oversee the refuelling.

Today, providing force projection of USAF’s nuclear bomber fleet (a job now maintained by the USAF’s Global Strike Command) is only a small part of the KC-135’s overall mission. The Stratotanker is a common sight above Iraq and Syria, providing fuel to American and Coalition strike aircraft maintaining overwatch and delivering precision strikes against Daesh targets. Airborne surveillance assets like the E-8 JSTARS and E-3 Sentry AWACS are also kept in the air by KC-135s. The USAF’s Air Mobility Command fleet has a reach that extends across the globe, often in spite of whether there are friendly airfields along the way – again, thanks to air-to-air refuelling from a KC-135.


Seen here with USAF, RAAF, and RAF customers (USAF)

Arguably, the KC-135 has shaped the United States foreign military projection over the past 60 years, much like the aircraft carrier has done so since the end of the Second World War. Its original intent was largely to allow Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strike fleet to have a global reach, and it 800-strong fleet is indicative of the Strategic Air Command excesses of the 1950s and 60s.  The value of the KC-135 – both in its air-to-air refuelling role, and the sheer quantity of airframes in the USAF – has become evident with the more conventional campaigns fought by the USAF over six decades. Whilst the KC-135 has continued to refuel nuclear-armed bombers, its crews found themselves supporting more ‘traditional’ air power roles, so much so that a new acronym for KC-135 crews was crafted – NKAWTG. That is, ‘Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas’.

The KC-135’s timing into service couldn’t have been better for organisations such as the USAF’s Tactical Air Command and Military Airlift Command. When the KC-135’s construction run finished in 1965, the United States Military was on the uptick of the Vietnam War, where the tanker arguably found its calling. Launching out of bases in Thailand, the KC-135s flew ‘tanker tracks’ over South Vietnam, enabling aircraft like the F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief to strike targets in North Vietnam and provide Close Air Support to troops in contact with the Viet Cong. A hose-and-drogue fitting for the KC-135’s refuelling boom allowed it to also refuel United States Navy aircraft operating from aircraft carriers off the Vietnamese coast. Not only could the KC-135 allow aircraft to remain on-station and extend their range, but it also helped battle-damaged aircraft that were leaking fuel to make it back to friendly bases.

That massive fleet of more than 800 aircraft would prove useful time and again. During Operation Nickel Glass in 1973, KC-135s refuelled C-5A Galaxy transports that were loaded with tanks and ammunition to resupply the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War. It also helped ferry F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks that were transferred to the Israelis from US stocks). The KC-135 was critical to this ‘air bridge’ – the only country between the United States and Israel that permitted the resupply aircraft to land was Portugal, and while that made for a convenient ‘half-way’ point for landing aircraft, the distances and payloads still necessitated tankers to refuel aircraft making the journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean.


In case you had any trouble appreciating the size difference between a KC-135 and a C-5 (USAF)

One of the outcomes of the USAF’s experience during Vietnam and Operation Nickel Glass was the requirement for a bigger tanker than the KC-135, and in 1977, the USAF chose the DC-10 airliner as the basis of its new KC-10 Extender refueller, with 60 aircraft introduced between 1980 and 1988. Since then, both the KC-10 and the KC-135 have provided fuel for operations in the Middle East and consistently since 1990, as well as during Coalition efforts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Regional basing is critical to the USAF conducting global operations, but the exercise would be for nought without refuelling tankers.

Serious attempts to replace the USAF’s KC-135s have been protracted over the past 15 years, with sufficient drama to warrant its own Netflix series. A decision was made in 2011 to acquire a derivative of the Boeing 767 called the KC-46A, with 179 airframes being acquired initially. That will only replace part of the approximately 400-strong fleet of KC-135s which remains in USAF service. Whilst one-for-one replacement for the KC-135 with the KC-46A is unlikely, the USAF will still need to conduct additional tanker acquisition programs (or extend its KC-46A fleet) until all KC-135s can be retired. In the meantime, the KC-135 is expected to keep flying until at least 2040. The last KC-135 crew has yet to be born.


On the left, refuelling F-100 Super Sabres; on the right, the F-35A. God knows what will be on the end of the boom in 20 years. (USAF)

Last week, after the KC-135 pilot told me about the explanation for the ‘Tanker Toad’, I asked him what it was like flying something that had been a consistent part of American air power for over sixty years. He explained that the KC-135 was a generational aircraft – a grandfather, father, son or daughter could each all have flown the aircraft, and their kids probably will too.

Whilst I was Googling for ‘Tanker Toad’, I stumbled on one such example of the Brink family, for whom two generations had flown on the KC-135, with a third generation applying to follow.  The Grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Brink, joked “around our house, passing gas is a family tradition”.



About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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