OVER EASTERN INTERIOR ALASKA — On a July morning, Airman 1st Class Tylar Hoffert stared down at the glaciated mountains near Paxson from a narrow window at the back of a military fuel plane. Lying prone on his stomach, he manipulated a pair of joysticks that looked stolen off a ‘90s arcade game.
Each twitch and jab of his wrists guided a long, stiff hose called a boom dangling off the tail of a KC-135 Stratotanker toward an approaching F-35 fighter jet, one of the most expensive, sophisticated machines in the world. Hoffert’s job was to guide the boom into a small slot at the top of the fighter so a little more than 10,000 pounds of fuel could be pumped in — like a pit crew topping off a stock car, but at more than 300 mph some 20,000 feet in the air.
Aerial refueling, the process of passing fuel from one airplane to another in the air, is a crucial part of American military strategy, a low-profile task that makes many of the flashier components possible. Everything from the high-tech fifth-generation jet fighters like the F-35 to bulky troop-transporting cargo planes depends on being able to stay aloft during refueling, particularly in the expansive Pacific theater, where the U.S. increasingly treats China as its peer adversary and the distances between runways are daunting.
The Stratotanker carrying Hoffert was built in 1963, about average vintage for the nearly 400 KC-135s still in operation. But a new tanker the military has spent years trying to bring online as a replacement, the KC-46 Pegasus, is saddled with problems and delays, so much so that until last fall it was barred from flying combat missions. According to a 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office, the Pegasus program won’t hit full-rate production until September 2024 and is projected to be around $1 billion over budget.
“The air refueling fleet is the backbone of rapid global mobility,” said Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, at a House Armed Services Committee meeting in March. “And is our most stressed capability.”
Hoffert, 19, a recent West Valley High School graduate from Fairbanks and crewman in the Alaska National Guard, is an essential part of that capability.
“Pretty close,” he said into the mic on his headset as the boom found its receiver slot.
For around seven minutes, the two planes moved in tandem just 30 or so feet from each other, nothing but subtle flexes and shudders disrupting their syncopation, close enough for Hoffert to see the pilot’s goggles and almost read his name tag.
‘The demand for air refueling is insatiable’
Because of Alaska’s position at the intersection of several important air routes and relative proximity to most of the industrialized world, the Defense Department bases more than 100 fifth-generation jet fighters in the state, split between Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
Almost any time fighters roar off into the sky, whether it’s for routine training, a large-scale military exercise or intercepting Russian military aircraft as they approach U.S. airspace off Alaska’s coast, a fuel tanker is accompanying them.
That is partially out of necessity, because the state is so big.
“Literally we cannot defend Alaska without aerial refueling,” said Col. Mike Griesbaum, who commands the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Wing. “The demand for air refueling is insatiable.”
The Alaska National Guard, not the active-duty military, is in charge of aerial refueling, an arrangement not unique to the 49th state.
The refueling crew’s mission on this Thursday morning was to fly 155,000 pounds of fuel from JBER to an aerial training area north of Gakona, where several F-35s and F-22s were airborne.
“We are just their orbiting gas station,” joked Maj. Mike Strickler of the 168th Wing, the pilot for that day’s operation.
Fighter jets need to have enough fuel on board to make it back home safely, which limits how far pilots can fly without refueling. Dependability is paramount, because if a refueling craft is grounded or can’t pass off fuel, the fighter mission generally has to be called off.
“The only thing I care about is whether or not it’s there,” Maj. Steel Boyer, an F-22 pilot with the Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Fighter Squadron, said of the refueling tankers. “I need reliability; it’s probably the most important thing to me.”
Especially, he said, in “INDOPACOM,” military-speak for the Indo-Pacific region where U.S. military doctrine is built around what is frequently referred to as the “tyranny of distance.”
“Oftentimes they are our lifeline. We can’t operate without gas; that’s just a simple fact of life in the fighter business,” Boyer said.
But the KC-135s are, in several ways, relics of a bygone era of analog aviation. The plane is flown via metal cables running the length of the fuselage and wings, rather than through electrical systems, as is the case in contemporary craft. Upgrades around the turn of the century added more powerful engines to the wings. But the dials, buttons and levers inside the cockpit look like they would have been cutting-edge in the Kennedy administration.
Sixty-year-old machines like these make it possible for jet fighters to transit oceans, escort airborne dignitaries, or drop ordnance on enemy positions in war zones.
The crew leans into its role as glorified gas jockeys. The unit wears a patch bearing a cartoon skunk pumping fuel, and a banner just behind the cockpit reads, “Welcome Aboard 63-8015, ‘Passin Gas’ with Alaska’s Finest.”
Plagued with problems
While the KC-46 Pegasus is far newer than the Cold War-era KC-135 Stratotankers, and on paper has more capabilities meeting the needs of modern fighter jets, its track record of problems, delays and design flaws is well-known among pilots.
“This works, for the most part, extremely well,” Strickler said of the Stratotanker. “The sad thing is … we’re still more functional than the KC-46 — there’s so many issues with it.”
According to a Government Accountability Office report last year, around 2017, the same year the KC-46 Pegasus was supposed to start coming online, the Air Force discovered critical deficiencies. There were problems with the plane’s boom and its “remote vision system,” the cameras and display screens a boom operator uses from inside the cockpit to connect for fuel exchange, rather than a line of sight in the back of the fuselage.
“The program has been plagued with huge problems,” Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan said of the KC-46, which he has spent years pushing the Air Force to base in Alaska. “Maybe one of the most challenged programs in a long time.”
According to the Government Accountability Office, U.S. taxpayers will spend $44 billion buying the 179 KC-46s that the military and Congress ordered from Boeing.
Defense officials did not clear the Pegasus to be flown in combat operations or on combat deployments until last September. Instead, they are based primarily at military installations around the contiguous U.S. and used for training aerial refueling crews.
Despite those issues, many in military leadership and elected office in Alaska still want to see KC-46s sent here as a way of expanding aerial refueling capacity overall. The state currently has 10 KC-135s to handle its refueling needs. That will be bumped up to 13 next year once a contingent of active-duty Air Force personnel is added to the 354th Fighter Wing and integrated into the National Guard unit at Eielson — plans that have been in the works for several years.
“We appreciate the Air Force’s recognition of the significant aerial-refueling gap in Alaska and the desire to address it expeditiously,” the state’s congressional delegation said in a letter to the acting heads of the Air Force in March 2021, after the additional Stratotankers were announced.
The KC-46 can do things that older generations of tankers cannot, such as refueling itself in the air, drastically expanding its range. It also brings additional communications abilities and is designed to more easily service a wider range of Air Force and Navy aircraft.
But there’s an added imperative to bring the Pegasus online: The KC-135 Stratotanker is reaching the limits of how much new technology and functionality a 60-year-old plane flown via metal cables can absorb.
“We are strapping on digital architecture to an analog airplane,” said Griesbaum with the Guard’s 168th Wing.
The last KC-135 built for the military entered the service in 1965, and it has become challenging to source spare parts.
Griesbaum, the 168th Wing commander, pointed out that many military airplane programs have had inglorious starts.
“Every major weapon system has teething issues initially. We have asked the KC-46 to do a lot of new things,” Griesbaum said. “There’s a lot of growth that’s built into that airplane.”
The Air Force recently announced it plans to acquire 75 more Pegasus tankers in the years ahead, on top of the 179 it initially agreed to buy from Boeing.
‘You need a lot of tanking capacity’
As Stratotankers are retired but the KC-46s are not yet ready for prime time, the U.S. military will lose some of its aerial refueling capacity.
The Government Accountability Office predicted a 15% decrease in the number of aerial tankers in operation by 2024.
That contraction is happening as the military continues pivoting toward the Pacific theater amid the threat of conflict with China.
But officials are not panicking, in part because the U.S. is in a league of its own when it comes to aerial refueling.
“It is one of the things that we do better and at larger scale than any other air force in the world,” Griesbaum said.
Near-peer adversaries like China and Russia have nowhere near the refueling capacity that the U.S. has. Nor do any U.S. allies, which led to American KC-135 refueling aircraft flown by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, as well as the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.
“Relative to any other country, we still have way, way, way more tankers,” Sen. Sullivan said.
For years, Sullivan has pushed for KC-46s to come to Alaska to add refueling capacity for planes transiting from the Lower 48 to the Indo-Pacific, particularly if conflict breaks out.
Until then, Sullivan and others expect the Air Force will try to postpone retiring KC-135 Stratotankers whenever possible.
Sullivan pushed for money in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act for a dual-bay hangar at Eielson capable of housing either old tankers or new ones, but anticipates more refueling assets will arrive either way.
For the National Guard pilots and crew members in Alaska, there is no rush to abandon an aircraft that has functioned reliably for decades.
“I’m not worried about it because I know they’ll just keep the (KC-)135 going,” Lt. Col. Rick Huth said not long after returning to JBER after the July refueling flight above Paxson. “They’ll continue to slowly modernize the thing until they find an answer that fits the role.”