The Incredible Airborne Tanker Plane That's Been Flying For Over 60 Years

Modern fighter jets are capable of flying lengthy missions without the need to refuel. That may sound impressive at a glance, but when a plane is travelling well over the speed of sound (761 miles per hour) or flying around a target area for long periods of time, that range seems a little shorter. Similarly, cargo planes like the C-17 Globemaster III have incredible ranges, but carrying everything from troops to tanks can impact fuel economy. 

Cargo planes, fighter jets, and spy drones alike all rely on one of a few planes the U.S. Air Force uses for in-flight refueling. One such aircraft has been hard at work since 1957 and isn't stopping anytime soon: The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. It does exactly what the name implies. The aircraft is an airborne gas station for the U.S. military's fleet that allows planes to stay in the fight without touching down. Instead of lottery tickets and a bag of chips on offer like a regular gas station, the KC-135 is capable of delivering fuel to just about any military aircraft.

A gas station in the sky

Unlike the aforementioned F-22 Raptor, the KC-135 isn't equipped with rockets to shoot down spy planes, and it's not the star of Top Gun, but that doesn't mean it's role is any less important. The Stratotanker's mission is of vital importance as aircraft currently on mission often can't afford to lose time by landing at an Air Force base or on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The Stratotanker has the capacity to hold up to 150,000 pounds of fuel on tap. Although not its typical mission, the airborne tanker can also carry a payload up to 83,000 pounds of cargo or 37 passengers.

The aircraft first entered service in 1957 and from the outside, looks a lot like a passenger jet, and that's because it's based on a Boeing Dash 80, the plane that became the 707. It refuels other planes through a long movable tail boom attached to the back. Whenever a plane or helicopter needs some extra juice to keep flying, it hovers up behind the KC-135 where a boom operator will move the refueling probe into position to refuel.

Fueling up for decades

The KC-135 has served through the War on Terror, and is still used today. Despite being more than 65 years old, it is still undergoing upgrades to stay in the air. The current designations are KC-135R and KC-135T. According to the United States Air Force, there are currently 396 Stratotankers currently serving, with 243 flying with the Air National Guard and Air Force reserve. 

According to Boeing, 820 of the tanker plane of all variants have left the assembly line over its incredibly long service life. The aircraft maker says that it will eventually replace some KC-135s with the newer KC-46 tanker plane. But for the time being, the Stratotanker is still in its prime.