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Tanker's last flight: Last "E" model leaves wing
By Sgt. Wayne Woolley, NJDMAVA/PA

The Airmen of the 108th Air Refueling Wing gathered on the McGuire Air Force Base tarmac on Aug. 7 and said goodbye to an old friend that flew combat missions from Vietnam to Iraq during a 52- year military career.

With pieces of chalk, the Airmen signed their names on the gray fuselage of their “friend,” a KC-135E “Stratotanker” tanker jet.

After a brief ceremony, the big bird took off for one last mission, refueling a C-5 cargo plane en route to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the four-engine jet will become a display in the Air Mobility Command Museum.

The plane retiring from New Jersey is one of three “E” Model KC-135s in the entire Air Force

Master Sgt. Marcie Montalvo, former KC-135E boom operator, prepares to finish artwork on the last KC-135 E-model before it left on its final flight to the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base, Dover, Del. The dice are in the 150th Air Refueling Squadron's unit patch. The 150th was part of the 108th Air Refueling Wing. By Tech Sgt. Barbara Harbison, 108ARW/PA.

inventory still able to fly – and the only one still capable of flights in support of combat. The plane that was retired, number 57-1507, flew its last mission in support of operations in Iraq, a refueling operation over the Atlantic Ocean, on July 14.

Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, the 108th commander, was one of the two pilots for the plane’s final flight

Cunniff, who logged more than 3,000 hours at the controls of KC-135Es over his career, called the retirement “bittersweet."

“This is the end of the era and retirement of an aircraft that served with distinction over many years,” Cunniff said. “But it’s also a happy day, a new beginning.”

That’s because the 108th Air Refueling Wing’s fleet has been upgraded to KC-135R models, which have more powerful, quieter and more fuel efficient engines as well as upgraded electronics.

Under original Department of Defense plans announced in 2005, the 108th would have lost its mission with the retirement of its last KC-135E model, Cunniff said. Instead, New Jersey’s congressional delegation worked with Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Maria Falca-Dodson and the Airmen of the 108th to convince the Pentagon to allow the unit’s mission to continue with upgraded aircraft.

But the plane that retired Friday was clearly a part of history.

Commissioned in 1959, the plane was first assigned Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, then transferred to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and then it moved on to Thailand and the Philippines in support of combat operations over Vietnam. With its ability to carry more than 30,000 gallons of fuel, the KC-135 was credited with changing the face of aerial combat in Vietnam by lengthening the time warplanes could spend over the battlefield. Built and designed by Boeing, the KC-135 was a relative of the 707, one of the most successful early wide-bodied commercial airliners.

The E Model heading for retirement transferred to the Air Guard in 1975 and made its way to the 108th in 1984. The plane flew missions during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, patrolled the no-fly zone over Iraq in the late 1990s and most recently flew thousands of hours in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the time for the plane to push back and begin its takeoff neared, one of the Airmen who kept it flying all these years looked a bit sad.

“I cut my teeth on these airplanes. They were good airplanes,” said Master Sgt. Dan Kimble of Wanaque in Passaic County. “What does the plane mean to me? Do you remember your first car?”

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Volume 34 Number 5 Staff / Information
(c) 2009 NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs