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Stratotanker, Stratofortress tandem continue half a century of Asia-Pacific partnership

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Marianique Santos
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
America's involvement in the Vietnam War continued to escalate in 1965, and on June 18, 27 B-52 Stratofortresses broke the threshold of Guam's airspace toward the open skies of the Pacific to conduct the first Arc Light mission. At the same time, 27 KC-135 Stratotankers departed Japan to rendezvous with the bombers in the Philippines to refuel them for a 4,500 nautical mile round trip.

Ever since its first sortie, the KC-135 has played an important role in extending the reach of the B-52's airpower and lengthening the duration of its hovering capabilities -- capabilities that are crucial to a region surrounded by water.

"The relationship between the KC-135 and B-52 is one that has grown over the years and is now ideally suited to the Pacific Air Forces area of responsibility," said Lt. Col. Harry Dyson, 36th Operation Support Squadron commander.

"Andersen is one of the critical bases here in the Pacific because it's close enough to all our allies and our adversaries, while still being outside of immediate threat range," he continued. "The distances involved in the PACAF region are so great, and the ability to employ from Andersen is achievable because of the KC-135s and B-52s that rotate here regularly."

The B-52 started flying in 1952, while the first KC-135 was first delivered to the Air Force in 1957. Though the tanker was a little behind on the delivery, it was built to cater to the in-flight capabilities of the B-52's speed and operational altitude. Prior to the delivery of the KC-135s, The Air Force relied on the KC-97 Stratotanker for in-flight refueling, which was less than ideal for the Stratofortress' speed and operational high operational altitude.

As the U.S. Air Force started using the KC-135 more and more, the B-52 and KC-135 tandem was pivotal in historical combat operations stretching from the War in Vietnam to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to an article written by U.S. Air Force (Ret.) Col. Walter Boyne, a combat veteran, aviation historian and author, during Arc Light, KC-135s were used to keep the bombers in the air during missions that lasted for 12 hour or longer. Though some tankers stayed in the Philippines to be on stand-by for tactical aircraft during the span of Linebacker and Linebacker II, one tanker was always assigned to one bomber during inbound portions.

"That was pretty much the case for every mission," said Jeffrey Meyer, 36th Wing historian. "Even when they started making the G and the H models for the Stratofortress, which actually fly a little bit further, the KC-135s were still important to accomplishing the bomber missions."

By 1972, there were 195 KC-135s stationed in the Asia-Pacific region to support the 155 B-52s on Andersen's ramp and other combat aircraft spread all throughout the region.

After the Vietnam War, the tandem also conducted missions that forwarded or launched from the Pacific. Meyer said that multiple operations required aerial refueling capabilities in order to get the B-52s to their destination and back.

The duo was always ready on Andersen  when it was a Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War and continued to be used in the Middle East during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

"During Operation Desert Shield in 1991, the bombers utilized Andersen as a forward base to get to an expeditionary location where they launched for attack," he continued. "Two B-52s launched from here in 1996 for Operation Desert Strike and conducted a 33-hour to drop conventional bombs in Iraq as a warning."

Today, the partnership lives on with the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron and the expeditionary B-52 bomb squadrons that rotate in and out of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, to support U.S. Pacific Command's Continuous Bomber Presence and continue a partnership that has proven itself through history.

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