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US Air Force Stratotankers receive ADS-B Out upgrade

KC-135 Stratotanker
Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker fleet has received the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast Out, or ADS-B Out, upgrade, the service announced on June 23.

Delivered by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Tanker Directorate, the next-generation transponder system is critical for air traffic control’s visibility into their respective airspace.

The system broadcasts the precise position and location of aircraft in real time, giving air traffic control better visibility to track and manage, while enhancing safety by providing aircrew more situational awareness of nearby aircraft.

Installation of this capability was mandated by the US Federal Aviation Administration to allow the fleet of 396 KC-135s to operate in controlled airspace. Aircraft without this modification would be subject to sub-optimal routing around high-traffic airspace adding wear and tear to the engines and increasing fuel costs.

From the beginning, while the modification is critical to KC-135 worldwide operations, the challenge was to modify the fleet without “grounding” large numbers of aircraft at any given time to perform the upgrade.

To tackle this challenge, the ADS-B Out team divided the modification into “bite-size” field-level maintenance actions to simplify the final modification to only a routine flight software update and a single field-level box swap.

There are 35 KC-135 bases or operating locations worldwide, so the central node was critical to quickly turn transponders. The team leveraged commercial shipping allowing the transponders to be delivered to the field within two days of the upgrade. Additionally, the team deployed three additional CFTs to the largest KC-135 bases; Fairchild AFB, Washington, McConnell AFB, Kansas and MacDill AFB, Florida to upgrade transponders on-site to supplement the efforts from the central CFT at Tinker AFB.

The team finished OCONUS upgrades within two months of the fielding effort, allowing them to set their sights strictly on CONUS bases.

“The KC-135 is arguably the most important aircraft in the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. John Newberry, program executive officer for the Tanker Directorate. “It’s a workhorse that is absolutely vital to American global reach and national security. I’m proud of the team’s efforts to keep the plane viable and operational as we bring on the KC-46 Pegasus.”