In the skies over Kansas at 21,000 feet on a recent morning, two McConnell Air Force Base crews were on an air-to-air refueling training mission in KC-135 tankers.
The Stratotankers — often called "gas stations in the sky" — fly just 50 feet from another aircraft when they offload fuel.
"It's basically a ballet act," Lt. Tim Hickman, a KC-135 navigator, said from his post inside the cockpit.
On this day, however, a hydraulic fluid leak would not allow the boom to operate properly. That part of the training mission was scrubbed.
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The problem typifies a growing issue with the Air Force's tankers: More and more, the fleet shows its age.
Plans to replace the planes have been delayed by contract disputes and political squabbling.
When the fleet will be replaced – and by whom – will have a huge impact on Wichita.
Boeing and Northrop Grumman are battling for an initial $35 billion aerial refueling contract. A Boeing win could mean jobs for Wichita.
McConnell Air Force Base, which has a $408.8 million economic impact on the community, is the largest tanker base in the world. By September, the number of tankers there will grow to 48.
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