aviation: The end of the year: The retirement of the KC-10A Extender of the US Air Force


The US Air Force’s McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extender aerial refueling platform is about to be retired, bringing an important chapter in the history of military aviation to an end. On June 6, 2023, Travis Air Force Base in California said goodbye to the 349th Air Mobility Wing, 79th Air Refueling Squadron 83-0078, and handed over the KC-10A to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Arizona, known as « The Boneyard ».

The aircraft, 83-0078, affectionately known as « Outlaw » by the crew, was number 389 on the McDonnell Douglas production line in Long Beach, California. The KC-10A was 40.7 years old in December 1983 and was delivered by the U.S. Air Force, offering both aerial refueling and transport capabilities. Despite its tri-engine design making it less efficient than twin-engine aircraft such as the Boeing KC-45A Pegasus, the KC-10A was a reliable mainstay of the U.S. Air Force. According to a U.S. Air Force statement on October 6, 2023, the KC-10 has already completed its last combat missions.

Maj. Joseph Rush, 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron (EARS) commander, explained that the KC-10 has been the anchor of aerial refueling in the theater since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The ability to refuel another aircraft in the air allowed it to stay in the air longer and greatly extended its range. For fighter aircraft, this meant turning a two-hour flight without refueling into an eight-hour combat mission, providing nonstop support to troops on the ground or protection for valuable aircraft in combat zones. Rush also emphasized that the best elements of the KC-10 culture will be carried over into the KC-45A, which can be seen in the retirement ceremony of 83-0078.

Keeping history alive

A significant aspect of the KC-10A culture was the U.S. Air Force Dedicated Crew Chief Program. Master Sgt. Kenneth Jarvis, the dedicated crew chief of 83-0078, reported that he was selected to work for the program after 16 years in the Air Force. Jarvis talked about how much he grew to love the KC-10A and how he competed to keep his aircraft in top condition.

Another proud moment for Jarvis was when 83-0079 received the ‘Best Tanker of the Year’ award at the 2023 Australian International Airshow, despite the Royal Australian Air Force having its own aerial refuelling aircraft, the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport. Jarvis signed the nose gear door of his KC-10A before it was transferred to the ‘boneyard’ and shared his emotional connection to the aircraft. Master Sgt. Arriel Bromley, a boom operator who will transition to the KC-45A, spoke of his emotional attachment and the 16 years and 3,800 hours he spent on this aircraft.

Not all KC-10As end up in the boneyard. Some are displayed in museums. For example, the first of 60 KC-10A Extenders was delivered to the Air Mobility Command (AMC) Museum at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on April 26, 2022. Another example, 84-0185, will go to the March Field Air Museum in California. 84-0191, which supported Kissonde missions in 1986, is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force as a tribute to the strategic airlift.

While the U.S. Air Force has reduced its KC-10A fleet to its last six aircraft, its historical significance remains. 83-0078 may rest in the Boneyard, but its legacy lives on in the next generation of aerial refueling aircraft. The KC-10A has made an indelible contribution to aviation history and will be remembered as a symbol of efficiency and readiness.

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