Military News

Over Washington skies, old and new Air Force tankers cross paths

Lt. Col. Thorne Tibbitts flies KC-135 refueling tankers for the Air National Guard out of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane.
Lt. Col. Thorne Tibbitts flies KC-135 refueling tankers for the Air National Guard out of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane. Staff writer

Somewhere in the skies above central Washington, an old Air Force workhorse got a good look at the shiny new jet that is destined to replace it.

Lt. Col. Thorne Tibbitts, the pilot of a 1959 KC-135 refueling tanker, could see a crew in the distance testing a new Boeing jet that eventually will take over for the plane he’s flown for his entire 32-year military career.

He was curious about the newcomer, but he insisted his old tanker has many more flights to come.

“It’s still a great airplane,” Tibbits told a reporter along for a ride last month. “Hopefully the guys who designed it thought it would last this long.”

The two tankers are bound to cross paths more frequently in coming months as Boeing steps up its testing of the KC-46 jets south of Seattle. Meanwhile, crews at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane continue to fly their fleet of 35 KC-135 jets.

Boeing is facing a deadline to deliver 18 tankers to the Air Force by 2017. The program has had some delays that led Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James to tell reporters in August that she’s reviewing the production plan because “the margin in the schedule is all but gone at this point.”

Even if Boeing catches up, the Air Force is in for a long handoff between two generations of tankers.

For military communities on both sides of the state, Boeing’s push to fill its $35 billion contract to build 179 new jets holds significant ramifications.

In Western Washington, Air Force spending on the KC-46 is bringing about $2 billion a year to the economy. It’s one of the main contracts that have made for banner years recently in military spending in the Puget Sound region.

On the eastern side of the state, lawmakers and business groups are trying to make a case for the Air Force to station the new jets at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane.

It’s a coveted goal that would ensure Fairchild’s future for decades as a West Coast refueling hub. So far, only McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas has been named as a site to receive an active-duty KC-46 wing.

“Everybody wants it, but not everybody’s going to get it,” Tibbitts said.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is not vying for the tankers because it’s not a refueling base. McChord Air Field keeps busy with its fleet of more than 40 C-17 cargo jets.

Regardless of whether Fairchild lands the new jets, Tibbitts thinks the Spokane base could be a home to KC-135s for a couple more decades. The Air Force has about 400 of the old tankers, supporting combat missions around the world.

The KC-135 is “central to the mission and we couldn’t get it done without her,” said Senior Master Sgt. Warrant Hinton, 41, of Spokane.

Hinton is a boom operator in the Washington National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing. That means he wields the tools that deliver fuel from the belly of a KC-135 to the tanks of fighter jets in need of a fuel.

He links the two jets while lying on his belly in the rear of the tanker. While refueling, the planes get so close that he can see the eyes of the fighter pilots below him.

Hinton and Tibbitts have deployed around the world over their careers, refueling fighter jets over the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as participating in Pacific assignments that have taken them to the edges of East Asia. Tibbitts is retiring this year and is set for one more deployment that will take him to Guam.

“Getting airplanes together and getting them gas, that’s what we do,” Tibbitts said.

The 141st Air Refueling Wing works closely with its active-duty counterpart, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. It’s similar to the relationship that McChord’s active duty 62nd Airlift Wing has with the Reserve 446th Airlift Wing.

The National Guard last month invited reporters, officials from state agencies and a few representatives from large Western Washington businesses to join a refueling flight out of Boeing Field.

The plan was to do a midair refueling of a McChord jet, but at the last minute, the C-17 had to turn back home for Pierce County.

At the end of the flight, an Army colonel approached Tibbitts to tease him.

Your 1959 KC-135 did not break,” the Army officer said.

“No, it was a brand new one,” Tibbitts laughed.