In the aviation world there are few sights as recognisable as the tail of a 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) KC-135. The "Box D" proudly displayed on their jets is a nod back to the heritage of the 100th Bomb Group, The Bloody Hundredth, the group which their current wing evolved into. The 100th ARW was reactivated as Europe's sole KC-135 tanking wing at RAF Mildenhall on the 1st Febuary 1992. The Wing is the only Air Force wing that is authorised to display its Second World War heritage tail markings. The significant losses that the Bloody Hundredth suffered in the Second World War makes the display of the "Box D" particularly poignant on the modern tankers.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a base tour on the 14.6.16 at RAF Mildenhall, and we were hosted by the 100th ARW, and shown around by airmen of the 351st Air Refueling Squadron. The tour provided an excellent insight into the mission that the 100th ARW provides and the capabilities and history of the KC-135 airframe. The wing flies missions to support the EUCOM, AFCOM and CENTCOM theatres. They provide air-to-air refueling of USAF and NATO assets, and support the various operations in these areas. As the sole USAF tanker wing permanently based with the USAFE, they are a busy unit. The wing has 15 KC-135 aircraft and around 60 pilots. Unlike other USAFE bases in Britain, RAF Mildenhall is open 24/7 to provide constant support to USAF assets in Europe. The wing operates the KC-135R airframe, this update on the venerable -135 design offers a capable tanker in an older airframe. The CFM-56 engine adds an increase in thrust and reliability, and a substantial modernisation to the fleet. These crucial upgrades are necessary as the replacement aircraft, the KC-46, will not be delivered in sufficient numbers soon enough to replace the aging KC-135 fleet.
The KC-135 is predominantly a boom aircraft, that is to say it delivers its fuel from a large, single boom at the rear of the aircraft. This boom is controlled by the "boom operator", he directs the large boom with manipulations of the flight control surfaces mounted in a "V" at the end of the boom. The system can refuel one aircraft at a time, but it lessens the work load on the receiving aircraft as the pilot has to fly in formation with the tanker, with the boom operator maneuvering the boom to mate with the aircraft. The KC-135 can also use the probe and drogue system to refuel NATO & US Navy aircraft. When using this system the KC-135 has mounted pods on the wing, while retaining use of the boom. It can also use an adapter on the boom, but this means that the tanker is strictly a probe and drogue tanker, rather than a hybrid of sorts. This flexibility keeps the tanker fleet in high demand, and extends its support to other nations and services.
The 100 ARW are due to move to Germany at some time during the Mildenhall closing process. The closing of Mildenhall will mean that the USAF has no tanker capacity, nor 24/7 divert/stop off in the United Kingdom. While there is some doubt that Mildenhall will actually shut, the fate of the base officially is sealed . The USAF pulling more assets out of the UK in an effort to save money is an unwelcome reality of the expensive procurement of the latest defence projects the United States is pursuing. However, with the changing pace of threats and also policy, it is easy to doubt the decision. Still, until the final jet departs the runway, the 100 ARW will continue to provide around the clock tanker support to US & NATO operations from the UK.