Driving south on Rock Road, it is not hard to spot the construction underway at McConnell Air Force Base.
Blue cranes jut up from steel frames as construction workers busily hammer away at two new hangars for the first KC-46A tankers set to start arriving around August 2016.
“McConnell has probably not seen this in 50 years, as to how much construction is going on on base all at once,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Calvario, the civil engineer lead for construction related to the KC-46A. “This year alone, we have over $213 million worth of construction just to bed down the 46.”
In 2013, McConnell was selected as the first active-duty base in the country to receive the new tankers, which will eventually replace its aging fleet of 1950s-era KC-135 refueling tankers. The new tankers – the base is expected to eventually get 36 of them – put McConnell in position to be an important factor in the Air Force’s plans for decades to come.
McConnell houses Air Mobility Command’s 22nd Air Refueling Wing, Air Force Reserve Command’s 931st Air Refueling Group and the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing.
The base currently houses 59 KC-135 tankers, which makes it the world’s largest KC-135 base, according to a news release from the base. Those planes will eventually be retired as the new tankers arrive.
Though crews at McConnell have been modernizing the KC-135 tankers and will continue to do so until the new ones arrive, the KC-46A will be a major upgrade.
Within two hours, the plane can be reconfigured internally to accommodate a refueling mission, a cargo-carrying mission, passenger-carrying mission or a medical evacuation role. Airmen will no longer have to lay on their stomachs in the back of plane and look out a window to align the boom – the fuel connector – into the receiving plane.
The KC-46A tankers are slightly larger than the KC-135s, necessitating the construction of new hangars to house them. Boeing has a $35 billion contract to build and deliver 179 new tankers by 2027.
In addition to housing the planes, McConnell will also serve as a regional training center for the tankers. Only two other bases in the United States are scheduled to receive KC-46A planes, and one of them – Pease AFB in New Hampshire – is under McConnell oversight, said Lt. Col. Brian Backman.
Sixteen military construction projects are currently underway to accommodate the planes’ arrival next year, totaling $267 million. The projects are progressing “miraculously way fast and on schedule,” said Ben Davis, project manager with the Kansas City district of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing construction.
The first three hangars are scheduled to be completed by March 2016 at the latest, with the following three completed about a year later, Calvario said. Much of the construction is being performed by local subcontractors, Calvario said.
“We have over 200, 300 workers here just for the hanger projects alone, and they’re using the local hotels, renting property here, using the local restaurants,” he said. “It’s been a huge impact on the whole Wichita economy.
“The 46 isn’t scheduled to arrive until 2016, but in 2015 we’re still able to impact the local economy in a great way.”
The steel for the six hangars was purchased from fabricators in Topeka and Pittsburg, said Neal Ridgeway, senior project manager with Archer Western Aviation Partners.
Pilots in the KC-46A will have all of the technology available that is found on Boeing 787 Dreamliner commercial jets, Backman said. Its weapons system is also a substantial upgrade from the KC-135, Backman said.
“It’s a significant departure from how we do it now,” he said of the new tankers. “It plays multiple roles which the KC-135 is doing now, but it’s a more robust capability.”