Altus Receives Its First KC-46s

The 97th Air Mobility Wing welcomed its newest weapon system, the KC-46A Pegasus, to the official training unit of the Air Force’s new tanker aircraft, Feb. 8, 2019. Air Force photo.

Air Education and Training Command kicked off its KC-46 era on Friday as Altus AFB, Okla., accepted two of the new tankers for the service’s sole Pegasus training schoolhouse.

The two KC-46s—the fifth and sixth overall for the Air Force—landed for a celebration at the base, which has built up its infrastructure and brought in personnel over the past several years to be ready for the new tanker.

“This machine, coupled with a team of airmen who know how to innovate, becomes one of the most powerful tools of air superiority in the 21st century,” Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, said at the ceremony.

Altus, which was selected for the KC-46 in 2014, is also home to C-17 and KC-135 training. Those schoolhouses are running at full capacity as the first cadre of instructor pilots and maintainers will begin training on the KC-46. Altus crews expect the KC-46s to begin flying immediately, and to quickly integrate with the other aircraft.

“Rapid global mobility starts here, because we train the preponderance of mobility crew members,” said Col. Eric Carney, the commander of the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus. “The C-17 can’t do training without tankers, and tankers can’t do training without the C-17. So this is an ideal place to learn together. … The KC-135 schoolhouse and the C-17 schoolhouse will make the KC-46 schoolhouse better, faster.”

Now that the aircraft have arrived, Altus will begin a 60-day familiarization period where crews such as maintenance, aircrew flight equipment, police, the fire department, airfield operations, etc., will get their hands on it to learn how they will operate with the new tanker, said Maj. Jacob Piranio, the operations flight commander at the 56th Air Refueling Squadron. This will give the first Boeing-trained aircrews time to prepare, “to get comfortable” with the first planes, and ensure they are ready to fly with students since they had limited time to fly with Boeing, Piranio said.

These pilots come from a wide variety of backgrounds, not just tankers, but also RC-135s, B-52s, E-3s, and others, he said.

Boom operators have also gone through the same process, starting with a small group tryout to train with Boeing, then getting familiar with the aircraft now at Altus, and, finally, refining the syllabus for the first new students, said MSgt. Jonathan Lauterbach, boom operator and non-commissioned officer in charge at the 56th ARS.

For maintenance, Altus has brought in airmen from C-17, KC-135, and KC-10 backgrounds, along with FAA-certified airframe and powerplant mechanics to go through the familiarization period and prepare for training, said Donnie Obreiter, the KC-46 maintenance flight chief.

The goal was to bring in diverse personnel from each group—a broad set of ages and backgrounds—“to make sure we get the best product going as fast as possible,” Carney said.

Right now, the current training syllabi Altus is using on the KC-46 is to transition from an instructor pilot on another aircraft to being a Pegasus initial pilot. As there’s more time in simulators, on the flight line, and in the aircraft, other syllabi will “go active” and be refined, but “it’s going to take time,” Piranio said.

There is already a “pretty regimented schedule” laying out exactly when each aircraft will fly and who is going to fly it, Piranio said.

Wing officials wouldn’t publicly give a timeline for moving on with full training, since the situation is “dynamic.” The base just received its first aircraft, and syllabi changes and personnel moves could impact the process, Carney said, though “it could be a few months.”

Altus was previously home to the C-5 and C-141 flying training units, which also ran alongside C-17 and C-5 training. The base was selected because of this remaining infrastructure, which did not take a full “creation from scratch. We were able to mod some existing hangars, able to capitalize on some infrastructure that was already here,” Carney said. New military construction included simulators, classrooms, and a fuselage trainer, some of which had been completed years before the first KC-46s touched down.

“There’s a lot of excitement,” Carney said. “Everyone has been anxious to get the new aircraft here, and we’ve had the personnel here, and the maintainers here, and the boom operators who have been ready to get their hands on it and get their fingerprints on the plane. And now the time is coming.”