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The birth of a 60-year legacy

The first KC-135 Stratotanker emerges from the factory in Renton, Wash., next to the KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1956. This pairing symbolized the new age of jet tankers, which eventually replaced the rotary wing aircraft to keep up with faster fighter aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

The first KC-135 Stratotanker emerges from the factory in Renton, Wash., next to the KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1956. This pairing symbolized the new age of jet tankers, which eventually replaced the rotary wing aircraft to keep up with faster fighter aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

Aircraft 55-3118 sits on display, Aug. 13, 2015, near the east gate of McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The aircraft completed its first flight on Aug. 31, 1956 and was the first of 732 KC-135 Stratotankers delivered to the Air Force. Nicknamed “City of Renton” after the Washington city where it was manufactured, the Stratotanker was retired after decades of service in the Air Force and more than 40 years after its first flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jenna Caldwell)

Aircraft 55-3118 sits on display, Aug. 13, 2015, near the east gate of McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. The aircraft completed its first flight on Aug. 31, 1956 and was the first of 732 KC-135 Stratotankers delivered to the Air Force. Nicknamed “City of Renton” after the Washington city where it was manufactured, the Stratotanker was retired after decades of service in the Air Force and more than 40 years after its first flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jenna Caldwell)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Peering over the gates of the largest stratotanker wing in the Air Force, a legendary aircraft stands guard. 

Aircraft 55-3118, now a static display at McConnell Air Force Base, was the first KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft off the production line and the first to fly.

“55-3118 was a reliable, hard-working jet that served the United States Air Force well in whatever it was called on to do,” said retired Col. Gary Davis, former squadron commander presiding over the aircraft at Tinker AFB.

Before the KC-135, the KC-97 Stratofreighter dominated the flightline, but the Air Force was looking for a more advanced, ideal aircraft for the air refueling mission.

Manufacturing of the updated refueling tanker was underway by 1954. The first KC-135A production model, serial number 55-3118, “City of Renton,” rolled off the assembly line July 18, 1956, according to Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a book written by Robert S Hopkins III.

On Aug. 31, 1956, the aircraft completed its first flight at the Boeing facility in Renton, Washington, where it shared the flightline with its predecessor, the KC-97. The new aircraft had a take-off gross weight of 242,500 pounds, water injected engines and an increased air refueling altitude to 35,000 feet, according to Hopkins.

After completing initial Phase I and II flight tests at Edwards AFB, California, 55-3118 returned to Boeing where it continued test and evaluation duties until 1960. After testing, it went active, eventually transferring to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, and on to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, according to Hopkins.

Throughout the years, this KC-135 was altered to do other jobs, ranging from flying command post reconnaissance missions to escorting fighter aircraft.

“I was commander of the 8th Tactical Deployment squadron, [Tinker AFB] from February 1988 to April 1990,” said Davis. “[During my time], 55-3118 had a mission as a tactical deployment control aircraft and a mission to provide airlift to the Tactical Air Command commander and staff.”

After many years in the air, 55-3118 was brought to McConnell after its retirement in 1998, where it was restored with all its original parts.

“In light of [McConnell’s] newest mission to bed down the KC-46 Pegasus, I think the KC-135 anniversary event is very timely,” said Davis. “It is a reminder that the air refueling mission continues to be one of the Air Force’s most important, and will likely stay that way for many more decades to come. Our history with the KC-135 shows us that we can expect many years of good service from the KC-46, and no doubt, top units like the 22nd Air Refueling Wing will make that happen.”

55-3118 sits on its pedestal guarding over McConnell AFB, watching its 60 year legacy ascend into the sky to refuel the fight. As Team McConnell celebrates the many years of service of the KC-135, their eyes now turn to the KC-46. The KC-135, projected to serve for several decades to come, will share the flightline with its successor, just as the KC-97 did 60 years ago.