WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Aircrew members were on the brink of tears as they soared over Wright-Patterson Air Force Base April 30, knowing their most cherished aircraft would be the first KC-135 Stratotanker inducted into the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Down below, aviation enthusiasts from around the nation were gathered along the museum’s sparsely used runway. The enthralled audience members, many with personal or family ties to the KC-135, were waiting to cheer the arrival of the Hawaii Air National Guard’s most historic aircraft and interact with tanker crews from the past and present.
The Stratotanker, numbered 60-0329, has been an integral part of the 203rd Air Refueling Squadron since 1993. But it also earned a more global reputation while under the care of its previous stewards during the Vietnam War era. It’s recognized as the first refueling platform to be awarded the McKay Trophy in 1967, an honor reserved for aviators who demonstrate the highest skill levels by performing the ‘most meritorious flight of the year.’
The 203rd ARS pilots at the helm descended for a crowd-pleasing low-level approach before looping around for a landing. Wheels contacted the ground, and the KC-135R slowly came to a halt; 0329’s career was finally over. With more than six decades of operational service, the jet took merely a moment to become a national artifact in the museum.
Lt. Col. Kelly Church, 203rd ARS commander, found himself at a loss for words as he killed engines from the aircraft’s left driver seat. After a deep inhale, he uttered the final words to be spoken through its communication system, ‘0329, thank you for your service.’ Church said the moment was overwhelming for him and his team, as they reflected on the countless lives and operations the aircraft had affected throughout its service.
In recognition of 0329’s final voyage, the crew was accompanied by senior leadership. Maj. Gen. Duke A. Pirak, deputy director, Air National Guard, was in the cockpit jump seat, and the 154th Wing command team joined the mission-essential maintenance crew members in the cabin.
While 0329’s last crew shared an intimate connection with their prized ‘tanker,’ they were greeted by an entourage of veterans and family members whose livelihoods were also once deeply intertwined with the historic aircraft.
But most notable of all in attendance were the guests of honor – original crew members who took home the McKay Trophy more than 50 years ago. Retired pilots Lt. Col. Richard Trail and Lt. Col. John Casteel and retired crew chief Senior Master Sgt. Jack Barnes are legends in the Air Force tanker community for executing the world’s first tri-level refueling procedure, believed to have saved the lives of several U.S. Navy pilots.
While conducting wartime refueling in the Gulf of Tonkin in May 1967, the crew responded to an emergency refueling request from six Navy planes: two A-3 Skywarriors, two F-8 Crusaders and two F-4 Phantoms.
As they refueled one of the A-3s, one of the F-8s ran critically low on fuel. The KC-135 guided the F-8 to the A-3’s refueling boom and daisy-chained a refueling process from the KC-135 to the A-3 to the F-8. The bold actions of the Stratotanker crew ensured that all aircraft were able to return to their aircraft carrier safely.
“Being able to spend time with the McKay Trophy crew and seeing them being reunited with their aircraft was truly something special,” said Church. “One of the original crew chiefs who worked on the jet in Thailand said it looked better than it did in 1968.”
Throughout the gathering, Senior Master Sgt. Paul Foster, 154th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief and the last crew member to disembark the aircraft in an operational capacity, spent most of his time alongside Barnes, discussing memories of the jet. Of all the ‘nooks and crannies’ the two revisited, the two crew chiefs discovered they both stored king crab and lobster in the same underbelly compartment, where the altitude kept food cold during their excursions.
“All these little things, especially the technical ones, you never forget,” said Barnes. “Even though it’s been so long since I’ve worked on it, I’m feeling confident that I can go through the steps of preflighting it right now. It means a lot to me to see that it’s been in great hands all these years. It’s looking just as slick as ever.”
Apart from 0329’s paint scheme, most of the KC-135’s components have remained unchanged for 60 years. The aircraft was branded with a specific star decal on its tail flash after transferring to the Hawaii ANG in 1993. The ‘Hoku,’ meaning star in the Hawaiian language, represents the stars Polynesians would use as reference points to navigate the Pacific Ocean. Tanker 0329 was also given the nickname Kapea, one of the many titles attributed to the Southern Cross constellation.
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will preserve the aircraft in its present form. In honor of the aircraft’s heritage, a legacy decal reading ‘Young Tiger Task Force’ was permanently attached to the nose, signifying its original unit and the air refueling forerunners who answered their call aboard Tanker 0329.
Stratankers today continue to remain the U.S. Air Force’s most widely used air refueling platform. And with the induction of 0329, the tanker community is finally represented.
“Nowadays, global reach means everything in the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Dann S. Carlson, 154th Wing commander, during the induction ceremony. “And I cannot think of a more powerful example to showcase what global reach really is other than 0329. It is truly my honor and privilege to share this gift of Aloha with our country, and I hope that it inspires a strong and resilient force for generations to come.”