MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. – The 349th Air Refueling Squadron is currently going through an airframe transition that began Jan. 1, 2022, to transfer from the KC-135 Stratotanker to the KC-46A Pegasus.
“The unit is transitioning major weapons systems from the KC-135 to the KC-46,” said Lt. Col. Maureen Tanner, 349th ARS commander. “While on paper the transition looks immediate, but in reality the transition will be gradual. Per Air Force Instruction 10-201, the unit has 18 months to completely change platforms.”
Colonel Tanner said this transition is important because it’s about preparing for the future and the end-result is to become a combat-ready KC-46 flying unit.
The plans are for the Squadron to be a “mixed” unit with aircrew members flying both the KC-135 and the KC-46 until approximately October of this year. The 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron plans to be mixed as well.
“Much like the 349th ARS, one of our two KC-135 Aircraft Maintenance Units in the 22nd AMXS is converting to become our second KC-46 AMU,” said Maj. Jonathan Bradley, 22nd AMXS director of operations. “Since it takes approximately six months of training and experience for a maintainer to qualify on the KC-46 after leaving the KC-135, we began transitioning some KC-135 maintenance personnel to the KC-46 last fall in order to prepare for the 349th ARS’s conversion this year.”
As the transition occurs, the Air Force is still deciding what it will do with the 349th ARS KC-135s, Tanner added. The 350th ARS is staying with the KC-135 for several more years before they transition to the KC-46. Not only are they staying with the Stratotanker, but they plan to increase in size from 12 primary aircraft assigned to 14. So there is a possibility that some KC-135s from the 349th ARS may move to the 350th ARS.
Each month, maintainers will continue to transition to the KC-46 until the KC-135 AMU draws down to the right number of personnel to support the 350th ARS and the two KC-46 AMUs grow to support both the 344th ARS and 349th ARS.
“The National Defense Authorization Act for 2022 has been signed and it authorizes the Air Force to divest up to 18 KC-135s Air Force wide between now and the end of fiscal year 2023,” Bradley said. “Not all of those will come from McConnell though. Air Mobility Command is creating a plan to reduce McConnell down to the planned number of KC-135s for the 350th ARS, either by transferring KC-135s to other bases, or by retirement, while our KC-46 fleet continues to grow.”
Eventually, the Air Force will completely phase out the KC-135 Stratotanker, but not for several years.
“The KC-135 Stratotanker is a workhorse and has been the backbone of U.S. air refueling capability for decades,” Tanner said. “However, it is important for the unit to transition to the KC-46 because it is the future. This highly capable air-refueling platform brings new and needed capabilities to the fight. Our squadron transition keeps McConnell at the forefront of developing the tactics, techniques and procedures that will lay the foundation of the KC-46 enterprise for years to come.”