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Iowa ANG marks 20-year milestone with souped-up tanker

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Sioux City, Iowa -- “Change” in aviation has been the one constant since the Wright Flyer made its maiden voyage 120 years ago this year. A short twenty years after that first fight, two U.S. Army Air Service airplanes made history with the first air-to-air refueling.

As air refueling celebrates its 100th year, the Iowa Air National Guard is also observing a milestone anniversary in 2023, marking their 20th year in the Air Refueling business.

At the time of the 185th Fighter Wing’s conversion in 2003, unit members were less than enthusiastic about trading their F-16 fighters for giant air refueling aircraft. As the next twenty years unfolded, however, unit members came to embrace the work and experiences that came with the refueling mission.

The end is near

Airmen who were part of Iowa’s 185th Fighter Wing in 2003 have vivid recollections of that bitter day on January 16th when they bid a final farewell to their fighter mission. The weather on that grey day matched the mood as unit members watched their falcons’ taxi away and head for their new home in Syracuse, New York.

The early 2000s were the onset of a significant period of change in the Air National Guard that quickly found its way to Iowa. When the 185th transitioned to the KC-135, the refueling aircraft became the 185th’s ninth airframe in their short 56-year history.

Following the 2nd World War, dozens of fighter squadrons were added to the air arm of National Guard units around the nation. Two fighter units were allocated to the Iowa National Guard. One unit was headquartered in Des Moines, where there had been an observation squadron, and a new P-51 fighter squadron was also set up in Sioux City.

During the decades that followed, assumptions were made that the Air National Guard mission in Iowa would be a facsimile of what it was from the beginning - flying fighter planes. The Air National Guard’s close relationship with their state Army NG counterparts kept many ANG units flying variations of single seat fighter aircraft, providing a close air support with aircraft like the A-7 Corsair.

Years later, events like the end of the Cold War and the subsequent end to the U.S. Gulf War signaled the beginning of the end of the “Air National Guard Fighter Wing heydays” as early as 1991. Ironically, many Air Guard fighter units like the 185th FW were in the process of transitioning from the A-7 to flying F-16 Fighter aircraft during that same time period.

The Air National Guard found themselves heavy on fighter units during the 1990s as defense budgets were being spread thin. The aging F-16 airframe and the exorbitant cost of next generation fighters birthed the “convert or die” time period at the onset of the new millennium for many ANG fighter units like Iowa’s 185th.

By the early 2000’s the Iowa Air Guard made the determination that a flying mission could be preserved, if they would transition to the KC-135.

In January 2003, the day had come to bid farewell to the unit’s remaining F-16 fighters in Sioux City. The iconic Bat tailed fighters had already been painted over with the 174th FW “Cobra” from New York, as they taxied away covered in a disbelieving mirage of hot jet wash.

That cold day on January 16, 2003, marked the unofficial beginning of the 185th becoming a tanker unit. The final day of F-16 aircraft operations were flown just before Christmas on December 20, 2002.

For those who mark history by NFL Super Bowl championships, Tampa Bay defeated the “Oakland” Raiders that January, with a score of 48 to 21. The game’s outcome and their record in subsequent years did not, however, deter crew chiefs in Sioux City from naming a future KC-135 after the"Men in Black."

As the Oakland faithful consoled themselves, construction projects in Sioux City had already begun. A giant new Fuel Cell Hangar was being constructed. A huge addition to the “main” hangar was needed in order to bring the KC-135 aircraft indoors, including the giant 41-foot-high tail.

Lots and lots of new concrete was being poured to expand the ramp area. An addition to the fuel farm, a new fire station and removal of the jet engine hush house were some of the other projects in the works over the next few years.

Pilots who chose to stay with the unit in Iowa had already begun returning from KC-135 flight training. Some pilots had already “punched out” and found fighter pilot jobs in other states. A few others were old enough to call it a career and chose to retire.

During the months building up to the KC-135 conversion, the unit was scrambling to find aircrew training as well as available tail numbers. By October 2003, however, less than ten months after the F-16s departed, the first all Iowa KC-135 crew had successfully flown its solo flight departing from, and arriving in, Sioux City.

The conversion

Sioux City was originally allocated older KC-135 “E” model aircraft when they first converted. The first group of used “E-model” KC-135s came from all over the United States. Aircraft were gathered from Washington’s 141st ARW, Illinois 128th and Pennsylvania’s 171st among others. As it turned out, acquiring flyable assets at the time was only the beginning of the kind of KC-135 horse trading that is common among tanker units.

The Pacer-CRAG (Compass, Radar, And Global positioning system) cockpit and navigation updates were already complete across the KC-135 fleet by the early 2000s. The addition of modern GPS systems eliminated the KC-135 navigator position and allowed Sioux City’s entrance into the refueling business to start fresh. 

The new three-person flight crew included a pilot, co-pilot, and as a first for the 185th, the conversion added an enlisted air crew member as a boom operator.

The conversion process in Sioux City was not as seamless as most would have liked. Pilots initially trained on newer R-model aircraft, then after returning to Sioux City, were forced to revert to older KC-135E models. 

The KC-135 “R” model conversions within the Air Force fleet had also already begun in the early 2000s. The update called for new engines that were more powerful, significantly more fuel-efficient, and much quieter. 

By the fourth year into the 185th’s tanker conversion, most of the on base construction was finally wrapping up. In the spring of 2008 the last E-model, tail 58-0020, properly nicknamed “The Veteran,” departed Sioux City for the boneyard. The Maine ANG “Maniacs” eventually brought the Air Force’s last E-model to Davis-Monthan in the fall of 2009.

The R-Model conversion significantly opened up the deployment schedule for KC-135 units like the 185th after 2007. With the new engines, the aircraft’s range increased which allowed KC-135 basing in more remote areas. New missions included going to places like Kyrgyzstan and expanded the tanker presence throughout Southwest Asia.

Today, Iowa Air Guard members continue to deploy to Europe with the KC-135 in support of USAF and partner Nation operations, as well the NATO mission in Geilenkirchen. Air Refueling requirements also continue at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam in support of the continuous bomber presence in the Pacific. 

The Air Force’s commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades saw KC-135 units like the 185th regularly deploying in support of the Central Command area of responsibility.

The future

Aircrew and KC-135 maintainers from Iowa were firmly settled into their role and deployment schedules as the “block 45” conversions replaced more analog cockpit gauges. Sioux City received their first “Block-45”, with the “glass cockpit” on August 25, 2017.

Since taking on the air refueling mission, the unit quietly eclipsed their previous airframe holding record in 2020 with the KC-135. The previous record holder for the unit was held by the F-100 Super Sabre that was flown in Sioux City for 16 years, between 1961 and 1977. Interestingly, the F-100 and KC-135 manufacturing dates overlapped for a few years during the late 1950’s.

While operating the KC-135 in Sioux City the aircraft marked its 60th birthday in 2016. A milestone for the 185th came In 2021 when the unit celebrated its 75th anniversary.

As the newest KC-135s, born in the mid-1960s, edge closer to retirement, Air National Guard units are again looking to the future. The 185th recently proposed a significant runway expansion, along with new building projects in order to set themselves up for potential basing of newer air refueling aircraft.

What the future holds for KC-135 tanker units and their aircraft depends largely on defense priorities. While the KC-46 comes online, Air Guard units like the 185th are positioning themselves for basing of the newer refueling aircraft, while also focusing on current mission requirements. 

Keeping legacy aircraft like the KC-135 aloft is a multitiered endeavor that includes military and civilian enterprise. As recently as last year, Boeing aircraft announced that a new KC-135 horizontal stabilizer manufacturing contract was awarded to Tulsa Okla. based Spirit AeroSystems. According to a release from the company the new horizontal stabilizers should help further extend the life of the KC-135.

As the 185th marks 20 years in the air refueling business, another major construction project on their operations building is wrapping up and future infrastructure and mission planning is continuing. 

In the past 20 years, continued advances in aviation like the advent of modern UAVs, along with determining future defense needs, have all factored into determining the mission of the Air National Guard. The other known factor for Air Guard units like the 185th is that history has proven that change is coming.