The Navy's Blue Angels precision flying team made a cross-country trip Monday with help from two Utah Air National Guard aerial refueling tankers, which began gassing up the fighters while flying 440 mph high above the Bryce Canyon area.
The Air Force recently announced a $35 billion contract to build new refueling jets, based on the Airbus 330 airframe; but the addition is not expected to affect Utah's tanker wing for another 20 years, said Col. Kelvin Findlay, 151st Air Refueling Wing Commander.
The Utah refueling wing's KC-135 jets were built by Boeing beginning in the 1950s. For a plane that originally had a projected life span of about 10 years, current Air Force planning won't see the jets taken out of service until they are 70 years old.
The Guard's tanker base is on the east side of the Salt Lake International Airport. Commercial airline passengers taking off or landing can often see several of the dark-gray jets parked east of the airport's runways.
All eight of the tankers in the Utah fleet have undergone significant modifications and reconstruction during their life span.
"They will out perform anything out there at the airport," said Col. Sam Ramsey, the 151st's vice wing commander, comparing the oft-updated tankers to the commercial airliners on the opposite side of the runway. "They look like pretty new airplanes because our maintenance crews take very good care of our aircraft."
All of the jets in the Utah tanker fleet have had all four of their original engines stripped off and replaced, some of them twice. The upgrades give better performance and allow the military to overcome flying restrictions, especially in Europe, because the older engines were too noisy.
Besides ongoing maintenance and equipment upgrades, each jet in the tanker fleet undergoes a major inspection every five years, mostly to find and correct any structural damage caused by corrosion or fatigue. Sometimes large sections of the planes' aluminum skin is stripped away and replaced.
"These tankers have been tremendous," Findlay said, noting that not many aircraft that old are still as serviceable as the vintage tanker fleet.
Maintaining the older aircraft is more taxing on the maintenance crews, he said. One reason the Air Force has Guard units like the one in Utah keeping the older equipment is because the Guard has less turnover, and more experience, among its maintenance crews compared to active-duty units. The legacy jets are "still flying but they're 50 years old. You can't have that without having more maintenance," Findlay said.
Findlay said 179 of the new KC-45 tankers are planned as part of the new contract. There are still more than 500 KC-135s in service. All of the tankers now flying out of Utah are "R" models, denoting the generation of upgrades that began with the letter "A" that now goes through "T." A more outdated "E" model left Utah last week to go into "flyaway storage" in the airplane boneyard at Davis Mothan Air Base in Arizona, meaning it is in mothballs but could be pressed back into service if needed, Findlay said.That leaves one remaining "E" model at the Guard base in Utah, a jet that was first put into service in 1958 and has been flying out of Utah for 30 years. After 17,181 flying hours, Utah's oldest remaining tanker's next flight might be a short hop northward to join the display at the Hill Aerospace Museum, Findlay said, though the museum is also looking at other options to add a tanker to its display.