SIOUX CITY, Iowa – An Iowa Air National Guard KC-135 with a giant bat tail flash retired after 65 years of service. Tail number 57-2606, nicknamed “Free Bird,” took off this week for a one-way trip to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Chief Master Sgt. Brian Harder, 185th Air Refueling Wing Maintenance Operations superintendent, said the main contributing factor to retiring the aircraft boiled down to the projected cost of maintenance.
Harder said due to its age and flight hours, the aircraft was the first of 15 Stratotankers to be pulled from the Air Force inventory during the current round of decommissioning. Another mark against the aircraft: it did not have the newer block 45 avionics package.
The ripple effect of the new KC-46 coming has units around the Air Force shuffling legacy KC-135s around while others like 2606 are mothballed.
“This is the first big round of retirements Air Force-wide, and the 185th is the first in the chute,” Harder explained. “We are creating the statement of work for the folks down at AMARG for all the other 14 airplanes to follow.”
Harder said there is a lot of back and forth when they are trying to settle on a replacement aircraft that will best fit the unit’s periodic depot maintenance or “PDM” schedule. The priority, according to Harder, is to keep the maximum number of aircraft mission-ready, sandwiched between scheduled inspection and maintenance times.
Although the 185th ARW has traded a number of aircraft tails through the years, Harder said this is the first KC-135 R model the unit has sent to the boneyard.
The Boeing-engineered air refueling aircraft came to the 185th ARW in 2007 from the Air National Guard at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington.
Last week, 185th aircrew retrieved a replacement aircraft from McConnell AFB near Wichita, Kansas. The newer tail number, 62-3549, was quickly assimilated with the others in Iowa and rolled into the mission lineup.
During the nearly 10-year production run of the Stratotanker, 2606 was one of 732 produced by Boeing Aircraft during the 1950s and ’60s. According to the KC-135 fact sheet, the Air Force still maintains nearly 400 Stratotankers as part of the U.S. Air Force inventory.
As a relative newcomer to the air refueling community in the early 2000s, Sioux City had been rounding out its collection of “R” model aircraft when 2606 was moved to Iowa. During the 185th’s KC-135 conversion, the wing initially flew older “E” model aircraft while their former fighter pilots were completing tanker training.
When tail number 2606 arrived, it was one of the last pieces of the 185th’s KC-135 conversion puzzle. As “R” model KC-135s arrived in Iowa, remaining “E” models that had not been re-engined were slated for retirement.
The last pair of “E” models departed Sioux City the same time 2606 arrived, followed by 58-0020 known as “The Veteran,” when it flew out in the spring of 2008.
Last year, as the 185th celebrated its 75th anniversary, 2606 was chosen to be decorated with a retro gothic bat tail flash. The design was similar to what appeared on the unit’s F-16 fighter jets during the 1990s. The KC-135 anniversary tail was an immediate hit with aviation enthusiasts worldwide.
The popularity of the bat tail design even reached into the gaming universe on the digital combat simulator website, where it is available as an incredibly realistic skin for a KC-135 simulator model.
The aircraft being retired also has unique 75th-anniversary nose art, which includes silhouettes of fighter aircraft flown by the Iowa Guard since its beginnings in 1946. The “bat” moniker was adopted following the unit’s year-long deployment to Vietnam in 1968-69, where they flew an abundance of night missions with the F-100.
For more than six decades, 2606 likely had a number of names and has collected a lot of stories. The aircraft was initially attached at the hip to the 72nd Bomb Wing during the 1950s and ’60s at the now-defunct Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico.
During the 1970s, the Statotanker was part of the historic 449th Bomb Wing at Kincheloe AFB in Michigan, where it stood ready with the unit’s B-52s. The 170th Air Refueling Group of the New Jersey Air National Guard at McGuire AFB then inherited 2606. Between 1983 and 2003, tail 2606 remained a part of team McGuire. The aircraft was reenlisted for continued service when it was re-engined in 2004 and moved to Fairchild AFB.
While assigned to the Iowa Air National Guard, the globetrotting tanker had been captured by tail spotters in Andrews AFB, Geilenkirchen in Germany, Brisbane Airport in Australia, Glasgow-Prestwick airport and Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, San Juan Luis Munoz Marin in Puerto Rico and no doubt many others.
Iowa National Guard crew chiefs said 2606 has also traveled to Afghanistan, Guam and Qatar during its 15-year stint in Sioux City.
When shuffling the aircraft decommissioning deck, Air Force weapons system managers calculate a number of variables. The bottom line, according to Harder, is that the Air National Guard will continue to fly the same number of KC-135 aircraft even as older aircraft are retired.
Because of constant care and robust maintenance, when 2606 went to AMARG, it had flown over 25,000 hours, landed almost 10,000 times, and had nearly 4,300 full stops.
When 2606 first arrived in Sioux City, Air Guard crew chiefs named it “Free Bird” as a patriotic theme borrowed from the 1970’s Southern rock ballad by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Like the nearly 10-minute album version of the Skynyrd classic, KC-135 2606 can also boast a very long life.
Parts of 2606 will continue to live on as they are dispersed from the boneyard to help keep a shrinking KC-135 fleet aloft for years to come.