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First Stratotanker: Boeing’s First KC-135A Never Refueled Another Aircraft

When This First KC-135A Rolled Out, the last KC-97 Was Waiting to Welcome It

KC-135A via US Air Force

On July 18th 1955 the first Boeing KC-135A-BN Stratotanker (AF serial 55-3118/CN 17234) dubbed “The City of Renton” rolled off the assembly line at Boeing. Boeing would go on to build another 731 of them for the US Air Force, but 55-3118 was a special aircraft with a special history. Ironically when 55-3118 was rolled out of the factory, the last Boeing KC-97L Stratofreighter (AF serial 53-3816/CN 17149) was there next to it. The jet is now on display along with a Boeing B-47 Stratojet bomber at McConnell Air Force Base (AFB) near Wichita in Kansas since its retirement in 1998. 55-3118- the very first KC-135A Stratotanker, never flew a refueling mission! Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

Rollout of 55-3118 the first KC-135A via US Air Force

After 55-3118 took to the skies for the first time on August 31st 1956, the jet was accepted by the Air Force on January 24th 1957. The aircraft then went to Edwards AFB in California for USAF acceptance testing for nearly a year. In early 1958 the Air Force loaned 55-3118 back to Boeing for them to do testing with the airframe in order to improve the KC-135s being built as quickly as Boeing could rivet, bolt, and screw them together. 55-3118 helped improve every other KC-135 that came after that first Stratotanker roll out.

EC-135K 55-3118 while serving with TAC via US Air Force

Between 1958 and 1960 55-3118 flew test flights for Boeing. Then during July of 1960 the jet was transferred to Tinker AFB in Oklahoma for re-installation of its military equipment post-Boeing test. From there it was on to Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio for duty with the Air Force Flight Test Division. 55-3118 was transferred to Tactical Air Command (TAC) on January 21st 1961 and was promptly modified to the EC-135K specification in 1962. The jet spent the next 16 years with the 18th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (ACCS) out of Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina as the personal transport for the TAC commander. 55-3118 supported TAC deployments all over the world between 1962 and 1978.

55-3118 on display at McConnell AFB via US Air Force

During those years with the 18th ACCS, 55-3118 did something unique. In 1971 the jet flew Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China on a secret mission to prepare for President Richard Nixon’s historic first visit. It was Kissinger who made the first personal diplomatic contact with China since the Cold War began. Between 1978 and 1996 the aircraft served with the 8th Tactical Deployment Squadron of the 552nd Air Control Wing out of Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. In 1982 53-3118 received TF33-PW-103 turbofan engines at Tinker AFB. In 1996 the aircraft was transferred to the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB in Maryland. 55-3118 was converted back to standard KC-135A specifications before being placed on display as a gate guardian at McConnell in 1998.

55-3118 on display at McConnell AFB via US Air Force

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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