SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Air Force veteran crew chief Richard Devine’s interest was piqued recently when he saw a news story and photos about a military aircraft he once crewed over 60 years ago.
The retired Omaha, Nebraska, resident got excited when he discovered the aircraft was still in service and stationed in nearby Sioux City, Iowa.
“I was wondering if there is any chance this 82-year-old veteran could tour 057?” Devine wrote in a message to the Iowa Air Guard. “I have a special interest in 057, as I crewed her when she was at Loring Air Force Base in the late 1950s early 1960s.”
The U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker that was the subject of Devine’s inquiry is tail number 58-0057.
The aircraft had recently returned to Iowa’s 185th Air Refueling Wing from periodic maintenance. The KC-135 had been freshly painted and had a new bat tail flash commemorative of the Iowa Air National Guard unit’s 75th Anniversary.
Devine said when he saw photos of the tail number, he immediately recognized the midair refueling tanker as an aircraft he once crewed.
Separated by decades yet connected by the same airplane, Devine and the aircraft’s current crew chief, Master Sgt. Jamie Bethune, recently met on the flight line in Sioux City. Bethune was glad to show off the updated KC-135 while the two kindred spirits shared related experiences with the midair refueling aircraft.
Devine’s story with the KC-135, referred to as “five-seven,” along with Loring Air Force Base, converged at the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s.
Devine said enlistees had few choices when he joined the Air Force in 1958.
“You could raise your hand, or you could wait until they raised it for you,” Devine joked about serving during the time of conscription.
Rather than waiting to be drafted, Devine said he and a friend went to the recruiting station. He said they were both “car nuts,” so they asked the recruiter if they could get jobs as aircraft mechanics.
“I enlisted with a buddy, with the recruiter guaranteeing us we could be working on airplanes when we enlisted,” Devine explained.
After basic training and technical school, Devine arrived at Loring AFB near Caribou, Maine, where he was assigned to help crew B-52 bombers. Loring AFB was constructed at America’s most northern city during the post-war 1950s before Alaska had become a state.
The base was home to the 42nd Bomb Wing and housed B-52 bombers that were part of the newly created Strategic Air Command. The B-52s' need for speed and fuel called for newer, jet-powered refueling aircraft to keep up with the newest strategic bombers.
By the early 1960s, wherever U.S. bombers were stationed, KC-135s were also on the ramp.
During Devine’s time in the Air Force, the KC-135 was one of the newest aircraft in the inventory. The timing of the KC-135 production and Devine’s entrance into the Air Force made him part of a unique club of first-generation KC-135 crew members.
New Stratotankers continued to roll off the Boeing assembly line through the end of Devine’s enlistment in 1963 until the last KC-135 was built in 1965.
During Devine’s service, aircraft 58-0057 was assigned to the 42nd Air Refueling Squadron and was part of the 42nd Bomb Wing at Loring AFB.
“It was a SAC (Strategic Air Command) base, and our mission there was to support Chrome Dome,” Devine said.
The 42nd Bomb Wing mission under Operation Chrome Dome had B-52s with KC-135s flying on continuous airborne alert along large parts of the Arctic region near the border of the Soviet Union.
“We worked every day as though we were at war,” Devine explained.
Devine said it was after he had the opportunity to recover a KC-135 that he asked if he could crew KC-135s instead of the B-52.
“They usually took newbies and put them on the B-52 crews to help launch the airplanes,” Devine said. “Although they wouldn’t admit it, the B-52 could be a booger to launch.”
Even at age 82, Devine was eager to climb the crew ladder into the cockpit of the KC-135 during his reunion tour in Sioux City. Devine declined to use the airstair parked alongside the aircraft.
“It’s been 60 years since I’ve climbed that ladder,” Devine said as he crawled up through the crew hatch into the cockpit.
Inside the modern KC-135R, a “glass cockpit” has replaced most of the “steam gauges,” or analog instruments that were part of the original A model.
As Bethune toured the aircraft, he pointed out anomalies like the navigator’s table and sextant. Even though modern GPS systems eliminated the navigator position, the “nav” table remains. Today the navigator’s table serves as a boom operator’s desk when they are not on their stomach refueling jets in the back of the aircraft.
As the two walked through the airplane, Bethune asked Devine about some mounts on the ceiling of the cargo area.
“That was for the cargo rail,” Devine explained, describing how a long-abandoned cargo rail was originally used with a winch to bring cargo in and out of the airplane.
According to the Air Force KC-135 fact sheet, about half of the original fleet of just over 700 KC-135s remain in the U.S. Air Force inventory, with the majority now in the Air National Guard.
Through the decades, remaining Air Force KC-135s have been re-engined, re-skinned and mostly remade into a different aircraft compared to the “A” model of Devine’s time.
To say that aircraft maintainers develop a special relationship with their aircraft may be a bit of an understatement. When looking at an aircraft, a maintainer’s eye will immediately go to the tail number.
An aircraft maintainer can tell instantly if they have worked on a particular airframe, even 60 years later. When Devine saw the story and photos about tail number 057, it was like finding a long-lost friend.
With the newest KC-135s approaching 60 and plans for continued updates and improvements, it could be the first U.S. warplane to serve for 100 years.
History will credit the regular maintenance and constant care of the KC-135 by maintainers like Devine and Bethune for keeping the aircraft in continuous service for its first six decades.