Keeping legacy tankers airborne now and in the future

Every minute of every day, there is an aerial refueling tanker in flight somewhere in the world. Making sure these aircraft operate the way they’re supposed to is critical to not only the tanker itself, but to the aircraft the tanker is refueling.

Rockwell Collins plays a large role in keeping refueling tankers operational and bringing them up to current flight standards and pilot expectations. For decades, teams in Rockwell Collins’ Government Systems division have helped support legacy tankers such as the KC-135 and KC-10.

“Tankers aren’t glamorous, but they’re the backbone of the Air Force. What we do helps keep people on the front lines safe and helps members of the military do a great job,” said David Cook, principal program manager, Legacy Tanker Solutions for Rockwell Collins.

The KC-135 was delivered to the Air Force from 1957 to 1965. Even with their age, the Air Force plans to use these aircraft for at least another 30 years.

“Updating an older aircraft has its challenges”, said Angie Dunlay, systems engineer, Tanker Systems for Rockwell Collins. “Some parts for the KC-135 aren’t made anymore. In some cases there are no specs and engineers have to figure out how the parts were built without any documentation.”

Bringing 50-year-old tankers into the 21st century

Despite these challenges, the tanker engineering teams at Rockwell Collins continue to explore new upgrades which reduce pilot workload during their missions. Leveraging solutions from both commercial technology and military aircraft, Rockwell Collins engineers constantly explore new ideas to increase the availability and effectiveness of the fleet.

Recently, the teams supporting the KC-135 and KC-10 programs demonstrated ongoing upgrades and plans for future enhancements to Maj. Gen. John Wood, Air Force Air Mobility Command. The visit provided Maj. Gen. Wood the opportunity to meet these teams and to learn more about potential future solutions for the KC-135.

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Angie Dunlay (right), systems engineer for Rockwell Collins, demonstrates potential KC-135 solutions to Air Force Maj. Gen. John Wood (left) in a recent visit to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa facility

A key component of keeping tankers up in the air involved upgrading outdated avionics with Rockwell Collins’ Flight2™ integrated avionics system. The solution modernizes the cockpit while providing compliance with airspace mandates such as Communications, Navigation, Surveillance and Air Traffic Management Systems (CNS/ATM).

A KC-135 cockpit upgraded with Rockwell Collins' Flight2TM integrated avionics system features a large-format engine instrument display.

A long history and experience with tanker aircraft

Several of the engineers and program managers on the teams are former Air Force members who used to fly or work on these tankers. Greg Sharp, principal systems engineer for Rockwell Collins, was an engineer on the KC-135 before retiring from the Air Force.

JR Russo, principal technical project manager for Rockwell Collins, was a former Major and instructor pilot in the Air Force, flying the KC-135 before deciding to retire in 1996 and take a job with Rockwell Collins. Building on this experience and working closely with the Air Force, the teams are proud of what they do to support the mission of the tanker.

“Aerial refueling is something that’s continually being done, averaging a contact every six minutes every hour, every day,” said Ryan Roseke, principal program manager, Legacy Tanker Solutions for Rockwell Collins. “What we do to support these legacy tankers is very much in the heart of supporting our military.”

Story posted: October 22, 2018

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