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Air Force's newest refueling tanker arrives in Oklahoma for maintenance

A KC-46A Pegasus lands at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., July 19, 2019.

ALEXI MYRICK/U.S. AIR FORCE

By DALE DENWALT | The Oklahoman | Published: September 11, 2020

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE (Tribune News Service) — Maintenance crews at Tinker Air Force Base welcomed their first KC-46 mid-air refueling tanker Thursday.

The KC-46 Pegasus is the U.S. Air Force's newest aircraft to to enter the service. It will eventually replace the six-decade old KC-135 Stratotanker. After landing at the base Thursday afternoon, civilian members of the 76th Aircraft Maintenance Group gathered around the aircraft for a closer look and a group photo to commemorate the event.

"We're not here to just turn wrenches and change tires," said Col. Gregory Lowe, commander of the maintenance group. "We're here to put airplanes back in the air."

The base will eventually host 90 of the aircraft each year on a rotating maintenance schedule. Construction is still ongoing at Tinker to accommodate the mission. When construction is complete, Tinker will have 14 hangars to house the aircraft when they pass through Oklahoma, and the estimated 1,300 workers assigned to the job. That construction is expected to cost $600 million over the next 10 to 12 years, Lowe said.

The Air Force acquired 158 acres for the KC-46 maintenance, repair and overhaul mission on what used to be the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railyard.

Gene Harris, director of the squadron responsible for upkeep on the KC-46, said the general maintenance will include general visual inspections of the aircraft and replacing parts as needed.

"We have maintainers that have been doing maintenance on the legacy platforms like the (KC-135) and B-1 (Lancer), so we feel that we have the maintainers who are able to support this workload," Harris said. "The workload is supposed to be accomplished in about 36 days."

The Pegasus is based out of McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, and air crews train on a number of the aircraft in Altus. It is a military version of Boeing’s 767, which had previously been configured for commercial passenger and cargo use.

Despite their large size, refueling tankers typically have a small aircrew consisting of two pilots and a boom operator, who manually guides the refueling device into place so other aircraft can link to it.

Unlike crews on the Stratotanker, KC-46 refueling boom operators will sit upright at a video screen rather than lying prone, staring out a window.

A refueling session can last minutes or hours, depending on the mission. One pilot who spoke to The Oklahoman last year said some flights, where dozens of fighter jets are being moved across the world, can leave a boom operator on their stomach for 10 hours straight to keep the fleet topped off with fuel.

The Pegasus can be converted for several uses aside from its refueling role. It can hold pallets of cargo and also serve as a medical air transport.

Base personnel are also preparing for the arrival of the B-21 Raider, a planned long-range strike bomber that is expected to be delivered to the Air Force within the decade.

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