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Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

Aerial refueling tanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

The KC-135 Stratotanker is in service with the USAF for nearly 60 years

Country of origin USA
Entered service 1957
Crew 3-4 men
Dimensions and weight
Length 41.53 m
Wing span 40 m
Height 12.7 m
Weight (empty) 45 t
Weight (maximum take off) 146 t
Engines and performance
Engines 4 x Pratt & Witney J57 turbofans
Engines (KC-135R) 4 CFM International CFM56 turbofans
Traction (KC-135R) 4 x 96.2 kN
Maximum speed (KC-135R) 933 km/h
Cruising speed (KC-135R) 853 km/h
Service ceiling (KC-135R) 15.2 km
Range with 68 t of fuel (KC-135R) 2 400 km
Ferry range (KC-135R) 17 766 km
Fuel and cargo
Fuel load up to 90 700 kg
Passengers up to 80 men
Maximum payload up to 37 600 kg


   In 1952 Boeing developed a four-jet military transport aircraft project as a private venture. The company hoped that the US Air Force (USAF) would almost certainly buy an inflight refueling tanker to support its long-range strategic bombers. Eventually these plans paid off. In 1954 the USAF announced that it was to procure this new tanker aircraft. It made its first flight in 1956. In 1957 the USAF adopted this aircraft as the KC-135 Stratotanker. It was the most numerous variant of the C-135 Stratolifter. Overall USAF acquired a total of 732 of these tankers until production ceased in 1965. In 2001 a total of 549 of these aircraft remained in service. In 2016 the KC-135 still forms the majority of the US tanker fleet. The USAF operates around 400 of these aircraft, including around 160 active duty aircraft, 60 reserve aircraft. Further 180 tankers are used by the Air National Guard. Currently used variants are the KC-135R and KC-135T. These aerial refueling tankers are supplemented by a larger KC-10 Extender. It is planned that the KC-135 will be gradually replaced by the new KC-46 Pegasus. However studies have concluded that many of these aircraft could remain operational and fly until 2040. Export operators of the KC-135 are Chile, France, Singapore and Turkey, that fly small numbers of these tankers.

   The KC-135 is smaller than commercial Boeing Model 707. It was the first USAF's jet-powered refueling tanker. Originally it was used to refuel strategic bombers. However since the Vietnam War the KC-135 was also used to refuel fighters and tactical bombers. This allowed the fighters and tactical bombers to spend hours, rather than few minutes, at the frontline. A number of older USAF C-135 series aircraft were converted to the tanker standard.

   This plane carries up to 90 700 kg of fuel. The primary fuel transfer method is through the boom. The Stratotanker uses Boeing's patented "flying boom" inflight refueling system. However this aircraft can be also fitted with underwing refueling pods.

   The KC-135 is operated by a crew of three, including pilot, co-pilot and boom operator. Some missions are flown with additional navigator.

   This aircraft has a secondary transport capability. A cargo deck above the refueling system can carry a mix of passengers or cargo. Maximum cargo capacity is up to 37 600 kg, depending on the fuel storage configuration. Alternatively it can carry up to 80 passengers.

   This aircraft is powered by 4 turbofan engines. Originally it came with Pratt & Whitney J57 turbofans. Later these tankers were re-engined with newer and more powerful and more fuel efficient engines.




   KC-135A is the original production version. It is powered by Pratt & Whitney J57s engines. A total of 732 of these aircraft were built.

   KC-135B is an airborne command post. A total of 17 of these aircraft were built. Later these received in-flight refueling capability and were redesignated as the EC-135Cs.

   KC-135D is an RC-135A reconnaissance aircraft, converted into tanker. A total of 4 aircraft were converted to this standard. All of these aircraft were retired in 2007.

   KC-135E. It is basically the original KC-135A re-engined with TF33 turbofans. A total of 161 aircraft were modified to this standard. All of these aircraft were retired from the USAF in 2009.

   KC-135Q. It has also been re-engined with F108 engines as the KC-135T. Formerly this aircraft was dedicated to refuelling the Lockheed SR-71 long-range reconnaissance aircraft and later F-117 Nighthawk stealthy ground attack aircraft and other covert programmes. It carried JP-7 fuel. A total of 56 aircraft were modified to this standard. Later a total of 54 aircraft were further upgraded to the KC-135T standard.

   KC-135R. It represents a thorough upgrading and re-engining of former KC-135As and some KC-135E with CFM-56 (F108-CF-100) turbofans. At least 361 aircraft was converted to this standard.

   KC-135T is a re-engined KC-135Q, fitted with CFM-56 engines. A total of 54 aircraft were modified to this standard.

   C-135FR is a French air force variant of the C-135 transport aircraft, fitted with refueling system. In terms of capabilities it is broadly similar to the US KC-135.


KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-135 Stratotanker

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