The familiar orange tiger tail of the KC-135 Stratotank disappeared into the sky over McGuire Air Force Base a final time last month, as the iconic military refueling plane flew off for another duty station to continue its mission of making sure fighter jets don’t run out of gas.
The plane, which is officially tail number 60-0366 but recognizable for the orange and black Princeton colors and “New Jersey” insignia emblazoned on its tail, took off from McGuire on Sept. 20 and arrived at its new duty station at the Bangor Air Force Base in Maine a few hours later.
“I’m kind of sad to leave it,” said Lt. Col. Chris Lawlor, who commanded the Stratotank’s final flight from McGuire to Bangor. “I know every sound it makes, and if something goes wrong, I know what to do.”
The Stratotank was given a proper military send-off, with the commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard Brigadier Gen. Patrick M. Kennedy, leading the ceremony. Members of the 108th Refueling Wing, which maintained the flying tiger, gathered on the tarmac for a final salute, and later posted a video tribute to the KC-135.
The Air Force is gradually replacing the KC-135 with a newer model, the KC-46. Many of the KC-135s, all built more than 60 years ago, are still in use. Built by the Boeing Company, the plane is a jetliner refitted for the military to carry fuel and cargo.
Lawlor said the plane is remarkable for its durability and still has plenty of life. “They’re going to be using this plane for a long time,” he said.
Built in 1960, the plane dubbed the “flying tiger” is the last of a group of KC-135 model of Stratotanks that was attached to the 108th Refueling Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The Stratotank, which Lawlor described as a “workhorse,” has a boom that attaches a line to another plane for refueling in the air, a neat maneuver at 20,000 feet when you’re flying at 300 knots (about 345 mph).
With more than 60 years in the air, the KC-135 has seen action in Vietnam, Kosovo, and all the conflicts in the Middle East: the Persian Gulf War, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. With its huge cargo space, the KC-135 has also been used for medical evacuation and to deliver humanitarian aid. Among its missions, the KC-135 spent several weeks delivering pallets of bottled water to New Orleans in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s such a good plane that the Air Force can’t retire it,” said Chris Lewis, a former Air National Guardsman who served as a mechanic from 1992 to 2000. Lewis described the KC-135 as a “rudder and stick plane” – one with an older steering system made up of steel cables, instead of the electronic systems used today.
Lewis didn’t see the final flight of the KC-135 out of McGuire, but learned about it later reading the chatter online. He said at one time, McGuire was host to about 20 KC-135s. “Some of been deployed elsewhere and others have gone to the boneyard,” he said.
In August, the plane did some final flyovers at the Atlantic City Air Show, the aerial equivalent of taking a bow before heading off to Maine. But after the plane changed hands at Bangor Air Force Base, the New Jersey emblem and the orange and black Princeton colors of the 108th were quickly removed by the plane’s new maintainers, the 101st Refueling Wing of the Bangor Air National Guard.
Lawlor said the flight to Bangor went “beautifully,” the Stratotank gliding easily past the lighthouses near Portland.
But it wasn’t easy seeing the color come off, he said.
“They had already took it (the paint) off by the time we left,” Lawlor said. “I didn’t want to say goodbye. So we just walked away.”
Members of the 108th had adorned the plane with Princeton colors in memory of Hobey Baker, a collegiate hockey and football star at Princeton who became a decorated fighter pilot during World War I.
A member of the Class of 1914, Baker’s speed and agility on the ice made national headlines during hockey’s early days. His death in a crash during an ill-fated “final flight” in France six weeks after the war ended made him a national hero.
After graduating from Princeton, Baker took a job on Wall Street, but kept making headlines playing amateur hockey. But the Wall Street job bored him, so in 1916 Baker joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps to train to become one of the first fighter pilots.
In France, Baker had Princeton’s orange and black painted on the side of his plane. Credited with downing three enemy aircraft, France awarded him the Croix de Guerre, the medal that honors its military allies.
Baker didn’t want to go back to Wall Street and lingered in France in the weeks after the war ended in November 1918. He eventually received orders from the Signal Corps to return home, but decided to take one “final flight” from airfield in Toul, France.
The plane he flew on December 21, 1918 was not his own and did not have the Princeton colors. The plane had just been repaired, so Baker took off for a test flight. Four hundred yards after takeoff, he crashed and died minutes later in an ambulance.
Military honors followed, and in 1945, Baker was among the first class of nine inductees into the newly established Hockey Hall of Fame. To continue his legacy, the NCAA in 1980 established the Hobey Baker Award, which is given each year to the collegiate hockey player who best displays talent and sportsmanship on the ice.
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