The US Air Force (USAF) flew non-stop around the world and back on its KC-46 air tanker for 36 hours between November 16 and 17, marking the longest such mission in Air Mobility Command history.
The record-breaking deployment was part of Air Mobility Command’s (AMC) effort to explore new ways to use its aircraft. The KC-46A Pegasus that conducted the mission belonged to the 157th Air Refueling Wing (ARW)
“This expanded mission is another example of capable airmen taking command and moving out to expedite our deployment of the KC-46A,” said Gen. Mike Minihan, AMC commander. “This Total Force mission boldly underscores the need to think differently, change the way we do business, and offer options to the combined force.”
The point-to-point, 36-hour, 16,000-mile, multi-crew Total Force operation began and ended at Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire.
A @157ARW KC-46A Pegasus flew a record non-stop mission halfway around the world and back.
— Air National Guard (@AirNatlGuard) November 22, 2022
The KC-46A departed the US East Coast on the morning of November 16. She flew west across the country and out into the Pacific Ocean, where she flew over Hawaii and crossed the International Date Line to Guam before returning to New Hampshire, where she landed on the evening of November 17, 36 hours to the minute after the plane takes off.
A KC-46A can be refueled in flight; Therefore, it can persist in theaters of operations to provide sustained support to combat aircraft.
The latest Air Mobility Endurance Mission demonstrated these capabilities — refueling and delivering gas to F-22 Raptors three times during the flight as they flew in a closed circle pattern off the coast of Hawaii.
The USAF works tirelessly to develop innovative ways to use their KC-46A
Commanded by General Minihan, the AMC works tirelessly to find new ways to deploy existing assets in anticipation of a future battle with a high-end peer competitor like Russia or China.
In October, the USAF flew a single-pilot KC-46A from the 22nd ARW to validate procedures for limited crew operations for certain potential high-end combat scenarios.
Such a concept of employment allows the KC-46 to perform its primary mission with a reduced crew when there is a need to quickly launch aircraft with incoming threats or expand long-range airborne operations with staggered crews.
“In times of war, airfields are static targets, as are all aircraft on the airfield when an attack arrives. But once airborne, the aircraft is a mobile platform capable of maneuvering and continuing to provide operational capabilities to the combatant commander,” said Col. Nate Vogel, 22nd ARW commander.
Conducted in military test airspace, the mission included two KC-46 sorties with only a single pilot and boom operator. The KC-46’s basic crew consists of a pilot, co-pilot and boom operator, with additional aircrew added for long-duration flights.
The first mission flew the pattern only, followed by a debriefing and evaluation. The second sortie followed immediately and completed a full mission profile, including ground operations, preflight duties, takeoff, air refueling rendezvous, air refueling during loading and unloading, landing and debriefing.
The boom operator was in the cockpit with the pilot except while performing boom operations.
“I made it very clear to my team: Victory will be fought on the back of the Mobility Air Force, and that means we’re looking closely at every tool at our disposal,” Minihan said after the mission. “The dynamics of the future operating environment require us to think in ways we don’t normally think,” he said.
KC-46 tanker approved for combat missions
The KC-46 Pegasus is a modified version of the Boeing 767 airliner designed to replace the aging KC-135 Stratotanker, also manufactured by Boeing. The aircraft can refuel aircraft at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute using its 55-foot fly-by-wire refueling boom.
However, numerous development setbacks, particularly related to the boom and vision systems, discussed at length in a recent EurAsian Times article, have prevented the USAF from deploying the KC-46 to a full range of missions.
The USAF and Boeing have been working to address these issues, but some components of the tanker’s refueling system are not expected to be fully repaired until 2025. Despite this, in September, General Minihan released the KC-46 for various missions, including combat.
So far, the tanker has been flown extensively on training missions and used in support of NATO missions related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In addition, Israel will acquire four KC-46As from the US for possible combat missions against Iran.
As the EurAsian Times has discussed, the KC-46A can play a key role in a possible Israeli attack on Iran. Many experts had called it the second most important acquisition after F-35 stealth fighters.
While Israel has fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters, the jets cannot fly to Iran and come back without refueling, requiring the F-35s to land at a friendly base near Iran.
With the KC-46 tanker, Israel can keep around a dozen of its bomber planes airborne for up to 12 hours with a range of over 11,000 kilometers. This could give the Israeli military a massive advantage in any operations against Iran, located some 1000 kilometers from the Israeli border.