One of the nation's largest family garages sits here in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, where crews work day and night to keep their fleet of American classics in good working order.
In a sprawling hangar off a runway south of Knoxville, airmen are turning wrenches, replacing sheet metal and repainting vehicles that, in some cases, have been entrusted to members of their families for up to four generations.
"It's the family car," says Tech Sgt. William "Rusty" Rutherford II, a crew chief with the Tennessee Air National Guard's 134th Refueling Wing. "I grew up out here. And the planes, they've amazed me my whole life."
The 134th maintains and operates a fleet of 10 KC-135R Stratotankers, the oldest of which was built in 1957. While the planes, modified Boeing 707 civilian airliners, have been updated with new engines and avionics over the decades, they are, at their core, still more than 60 years old.
These classics are far from showpieces — vintage vehicles rolled out and put on display a few times each year. No, they are workhorses — the backbone of the U.S. military's aerial refueling capability.
The Air Force has nearly 400 Stratotankers, all built between 1956 and 1965, comprising the majority of its air refueling fleet, which also includes the KC-10 Extender and the new KC-46A Pegasus. More than half of the KC-135s are in the Guard and Reserve, with the Guard flying 164, more than any other component.
Despite their age, the 134th’s KC-135Rs are constantly in action. Aircraft and crews are often overseas refueling aircraft or at home supporting the nation’s air defense. And this pace is unlikely to slow in the years ahead.
That’s because the Stratotanker, already among the Air Force’s oldest planes, is slated to fly for several more decades. By the time the planes are retired, some may be as much as a century old. This means the last generation of Guardsmen to work on the planes has not even been born.
It's every nook and cranny and rivet on the plane, up close and personal. They do an unbelievable job of keeping this thing going at its age.
—Mike Stene, Boeing KC-135 program manager
RETIRED Chief Master Sgt. William Rutherford looks at one of the 134th’s Stratotankers with a mix of nostalgia and dis-belief. A decade removed from his own service, he has returned to McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base with his son, William II.
The elder Rutherford was here when the 134th received its first KC-135s, then the KC-135A. They replaced the propeller-driven KC-97 Stratofreighter in 1976. The KC-97, which the Air Force operated from 1951 to 1978, could no longer keep up with more modern fighter jets and bombers.
Rutherford served in the Air Guard for more than four decades, but his career couldn’t outlast the KC-135. And he wasn’t the first in his family to try.
Long before he brought his own son to unit cookouts and let him run among the planes, an uncle served as Rutherford’s own introduction to the wing. “He used to bring me out here with him when I was a kid,” the retired chief master sergeant says. “And when I graduated high school, I joined the Guard, too.”
Part of Rutherford is amazed the Stratotanker has made it this far. In the 1990s, while working quality assurance for the unit, he remembers a report that project-ed the KC-135 would be flying until 2040.
“We all just rolled our eyes and asked ‘What are they smoking?” he recalls. “We thought this was ridiculous. But here we are, almost 2020, and they’re still going strong.”
Mike Stene has worked with the KC-135 since 1975 — first with the Air Force and now as a KC-135 program manager with Boeing, the company that manufactured the aircraft. He says the Stratotanker has long exceeded expectations. It was designed as a stopgap, a bridge between propeller-driven tankers and the next step in aviation modernization, not envisioned to be an airborne centenarian.
Despite their age, most of the planes have fewer flight hours than might otherwise be expected. This is because many of them sat idly on flight lines during the Cold War, serving as strategic assets to support nuclear bombers in case of World War II.
Still, officials have spoken of the need to replace the tanker since at least 1975, well past the planes initial 10- to 20-year life expectancy. In 2003, a Government Accountability Office report warned of an urgent need to replace the fleet due to advancing age and corrosion.
But would-be replacements, prior to Boeing’s own KC-46, failed to materialize for several reasons in the decades that the KC-135 has dominated the air-refueling world. And in the meanwhile, the Stratotanker has received numerous upgrades to bring it in line with modern aircraft.
High-performance engines, reskinned wings and new cockpit avionics — replacing the old tubes, dials and analog gauges of the original — have been among the most high-profile upgrades. But Stene says countless other parts have also been replaced due to wear and tear.
“It’s the same airplane, just new pieces,” he says.
The result is a tanker the Air Force believes has plenty of life left. Gen. Stephen Lyons, the commander of U.S. Transportation Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year that the Air Force will retain a portion of the Stratotanker fleet into the 2050s.
Service officials envision a fleet of 479 tankers. It will be a mix of the very old and the brand new, with 300 KC-135s and 179 KC-46s.
The KC-10, which has only been around since 1980, is headed for retirement over the next decade, but that could move to the right with delays and deficiencies in the KC-46.
The longevity of the Stratotanker is a credit to its original engineers, Stene says, and the efforts of generations of airmen, especially in the Guard.
Guardsmen have unparalleled expertise in working with the planes, he says, in part due to the stability and longevity the Guard offers when compared to their active-component counterparts, who typically move duty stations every two or so years.
A Guardsman could work on the same plane his or her entire career, Stene says. Or, as is the case in Tennessee, that work could span generations of the same family.“It’s a really good way to put it,” he says of the idea of the Stratotanker being a family car.
Planes are like cars, he says. Each have their own idiosyncrasies and no two are exactly alike. And no one knows the planes better than experienced Guardsmen.
“It’s every nook and cranny and rivet on the plane, up close and personal,” Stene says. “They do an unbelievable job of keeping this thing going at its age.”
I grew up out here. And the planes, they've amazed me my whole life.
—Tech. Sgt. William "Rusty" Rutherford II, a crew chief with the Tennessee Air National Guard's 134th Air Refueling Wing
THE RUTHERFORDS are far from the only family deeply rooted in the 134th. Members of the wing aren’t sure of the full extent of its family ties, but brothers, parents, sons, daughters and married couples are commonplace.
“I’m Big Spang. He’s Lil’ Spang,” jokes Master Sgt. Eric Spangler, who works at McGhee Tyson with his son, Staff Sgt. Kelly Spangler.
“Big Spang” served in the Navy and then the Reserves before joining the Guard in 2006. His son enlisted 2010, while still in high school. He works in the logistics section; his son is a crew chief.
The numerous family ties have created some unique scenarios for the in-demand unit. An airman returning from a deployment may overlap overseas with a family member. Others have deployed together. Sometimes, the family ties are far from expected.
“I was shocked that she joined,” says Master Sgt. Mark Gallagher, of his daughter, Airman 1st Class Shelby Gallagher.
The younger Gallagher worked on base as a gate security guard before joining the 134th in 2017, a dozen years after her father joined the Guard unit following a five-year stint in the active-component. He is a crew chief. She’s a maintenance specialist.
“I was going to let this part of the family stay with dad, but I fell in love,” Shelby Gallagher says. “It’s a family out here. Literally.”
The elder Gallagher recalls greeting his daughter after past deployments. But more recently, the situation has reversed. “It was pretty exciting, being on the other end of a welcome home,” he says.
Retired Col. Charles Johnson, a former vice commander of the wing, says the 134th has long been a family business. But those ties have only grown as branches of family trees have spread.
In 1991, Johnson swore in his nephew, now-Chief Master Sgt. Mike Johnson. Now the younger Johnson anticipates his daughter will join the second family, too, in the coming months. “It’s a very good unit with a family atmosphere,” the younger Johnson says. “The ties just extend the family we have.”
The numerous family ties can be a blessing. But they can also be problematic if not handled properly, the men say.
When Chief Master Sgt. Johnson enlisted, his uncle was a squadron commander. “I was trying to prove I was my own man. He al-lowed that. He didn’t interfere,” he says.
Just as important are the family members who don’t serve in uniform. Retired Master Sgt. Cathy Knouff says those family members have it much harder than those who do. When their loved ones deploy, they are left to hold down the fort on their own. “It’s hard, harder for them,” she says. “I know the highs, the lows of missing family members.”
Knouff speaks from a unique experience as the mother of three sons, each of whom serve in the 134th as a crew chief.
Master Sgt. Jeremy Knouff, Master Sgt. Kevin Knouff and Tech. Sgt. Ryan Knouff were typical brothers growing up, constantly fighting and arguing. It was never planned, but all three have found them-selves in the service of the 134th, following in their mother’s footsteps.
The brothers have been known to turn heads in the unit — for 18 years they worked together in the same shop — and their mother says it’s comforting to know that the siblings are there to look out for each other.
“I’m proud of them,” she says. “It’s hard to believe. I would have never believed it. It was a pleasant surprise.”
IF ANY of the numerous family members in the 134th do outlast the KC-135, they are likely to find themselves working on another Boeing product, the KC-46A.
Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Guard received the Air Guard’s first Pegasus tanker. In all, the Air Force has fielded 23 of the new planes, with 179 planned by 2027, according to Mike Hafer, Boeing’s global sales and marketing manager for the KC-46.
The KC-46 represents the first new tanker for the Guard in nearly half a century, he says. And a lot of effort is going into the new plane, which is requiring new facilities and new training for the units that are set to receive them.
The KC-46 is a “quantum leap” ahead of the KC-135, able to carry more fuel and deliver it more efficiently. It’s also better-suited to detect and avoid modern threats, particularly in a near-peer combat environment. And it can be more easily maintained.
“The KC-46 was specifically designed to be a KC-135 replacement,” Hafer says, but the new plane is far from an updated Stratotanker. “The first 135 was more closely related to the Wright flyer than the KC-135s are related to the KC-46 today.”
But the Stratotanker has informed the creation of the KC-46. He says the design for the new aircraft includes plenty of space for future upgrades, just in case its own replacement is a century away.
So far, the Guard’s second KC-46 unit has not yet been announced. Undoubtedly, there will be more, but many of the force’s 17 air-refueling wings will continue to work with KC-135s for many years. That will mean additional challenges for the Air Force and Boeing in the years ahead.
Many of the previous upgrades on the planes were necessitated because replacement parts were becoming hard to find and manufacturers closed up shop or moved on to other, more modern products. Some units have cannibalized parts off KC-135s in the aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
Boeing has tried to stay ahead of that curve by buying rights from those manufacturers and identifying replacements.
And with decades of service to go, Stene says there’s much work to come to keep the KC-135 airworthy. Future upgrades will include missile-defense warning systems, reskinned outer wings and modified stabilizers.
While not the sexiest plane in the sky, Stene says there are few that can compete with the KC-135 when it comes to importance.
“No fighter can truly operate the way planners want them to without a tanker somewhere giving them gas on the way out and the way back in,” he says. “An F-16 is a high-priced lawn dart without the 135.”
Mission: Aerial refueling & airlift
Primary Manufacturer: The Boeing Company
Entered Air Force Service: 1956
Entered Guard Service: 1975
Primary Variant in Service: KC-135R
Length: 136 feet, 3 inches
Height: 41 feet, 8 inches
Wingspan: 130 feet, 10 inches
Power Plant: Four CFM International CFM-56 turbofan engines
Speed: 530 mph
Range: 1,500 miles with 150,000 pounds of transfer fuel
Maximum Transfer Fuel Load: 200,000 pounds
Cargo Capacity: Six pallets, 53 passengers or 44 medical patients
Crew: Three for refueling: pilot, co-pilot and boom operator
Source: Air Force