While the battle over the nation's next military air tanker continues in Congress, officials of the National Institute for Aviation Research told Rep. Jerry Moran they need research money to help keep the current tanker fleet flying for the next 35 years.
Officials of the Wichita State University-operated research center told Moran that they calculate that even if Congress moves immediately on a contract for a new tanker, the last of the existing KC-135R tankers won't be retired until around 2042-2046.
That's 90 years after the plane joined the U.S. air fleet.
While most congressional attention has been fixed on finding a replacement aircraft, "the question is, what do we do with these tankers that are still going to be flying in 2042?" said John Tomblin, executive director of NIAR.
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Tomblin said the tankers are built to last, but are largely based on Eisenhower-era technology.
The flight decks, for example, are still made out of plywood, although much stronger and lighter composite materials are now available, he said.
In the coming years, the planes will need significant overhauling and modifications to keep current during the long period over which they'll be phased out, Tomblin said.
NIAR is hoping for research funding to determine what will need to be replaced on the planes and when.
Moran, R-Hays, is the front-runner in the race to replace Sam Brownback for one of Kansas' seats in the Senate.
He said he thinks that NIAR is the best place to try to answer the question of how to take care of the aging tanker fleet.
"I want to give these people a significant role in figuring out what we need to do," he said.
Moran, who represents Kansas' 1st Congressional District, was in Wichita from Tuesday through Friday.
In addition to touring NIAR, he also met with executives at the city's major aviation companies.
Moran has been to NIAR before, and along with the rest of the Kansas congressional delegation has fought to get the Air Force to buy its new tanker from Boeing Co., rather than a partnership of European planemaker Airbus and Northrup Grumman. The quest for a new tanker has been plagued by almost a decade of debate and delay.
But Moran said Friday's meeting was the first time he'd seen the chart projecting the time it will take to fully replace the tanker fleet.
Tomblin said it will take decades because of the number of planes needed.
The Air Force has 415 KC-135Rs in service, supported by 59 KC-10 tankers.
The first of the KC-135Rs were deployed in 1956.
The newest, Tomblin said, are about 30 to 40 years old.
The KC-135R, also known as the Stratotanker, is a close cousin of the Boeing 707 commercial jetliner, which dominated airline service in the 1960s and '70s.
Almost all of those planes have already been retired, although a few remain in service as business jets and air freighters.
The KC-10, also known as the Extender, is a hybrid tanker-freighter plane based on the McDonnell-Douglas/Boeing DC-10 jetliner.
It was introduced in 1981 to augment the capabilities of the smaller Stratotanker, but fewer were built.