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171st Air Refueling Wing Marks 45 Years with KC-135 Stratotanker

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Monk and Clara Gourley
  • 171st Air Refueling Wing

Forty-five years ago, the 171st Air Refueling Wing marked a significant milestone as eight KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft were permanently assigned to the base located near Pittsburgh.

In 1976, the 171st transitioned from Tactical Air Command to Strategic Air Command. Unit members were preparing for the arrival of a newer aircraft, the KC-135, which would replace the aging KC-97 Stratofreighter aircraft that was in service at the time. To help prepare for the transition, a KC-135 aircraft simulator, housed in a train railcar, was sent by railroad to Neville Island in Robinson Pa., enabling aircrews at the 171st to train locally, nine miles from the base.

These mobile railcar units allowed for the flexible deployment of training facilities to various locations, ensuring that aircrews across the country could access high-quality simulation training without the need for permanent infrastructure at every base.

The use of railcars to house simulators dates back to the Strategic Air Command era when Pullman passenger railcars were converted into mobile classrooms with fully equipped KC-135 simulators. The simulator consisted of two railcars, one housed the cockpit simulator and supporting computer systems, and the other served as a workshop and administrative area.

In June 1977, the first KC-135 arrived at the 171st, and within six months, eight aircrews were trained and mission-ready. By the time all aircraft were in place, eleven aircrews had completed extensive training and were combat-ready with the help of the railcars on Neville Island. By 1979, the 171st had fully adapted to the operational demands and mission profile of the KC-135.

Today, the 171st has two squadrons of eight KC-135 Stratotankers, making it the only super tanker wing in the Air National Guard. The 171st continues to innovate with the addition of the latest version of the KC-135 simulator in 2017. This full-motion simulator, located at the base and operated by CAE, replicates real-flight scenarios with high fidelity, and ensures that aircrews maintain peak readiness and proficiency.

The 171st remains at the forefront of air refueling operations and continues to maintain a legacy of excellence and adaptability while serving the nation's strategic needs.