Trijet tanker goes off duty – 9th Air Refueling Squadron retires its KC-10s

On 11th January 2024, the 9th Air Refueling Squadron officially retired one of its KC-10 Extender tankers, the aircraft that was assigned the flagship duty. The event was related to withdrawal of that trimotor air-to-air refuelling aircraft from active duty with the United States Air Force.

The McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender performed its maiden flight on 12th July 1980 and in March of the next year was introduced into active service with the USAF. The aeroplane was developed from DC-10 airliner within the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft Program, aimed at finding a supplement to the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet operated by the USAF.

The KC-10A Extender, as the trijet tanker was officially designated, was made in sixty examples for the USAF and additional two for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The latter were made in tanker-transport aircraft configuration and designated KDC-10. The KC-10A was manufactured until 1987, when its production was finally ceased.

During more than forty years of active service, the KC-10s were involved in several military operations all over the world. They included Operation El Dorado Canyon (Libya, 1986), Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (the Gulf War, 1991), Operation Allied Force (Yugoslavia, 1999), Operation Noble Eagle (USA, 2001), Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, 2001-2014), Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003-2011) and Operation Allies Refuge (Afghanistan, 2021).

A KC-10A Extender, assigned to the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, refuels an F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 79th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, Afghanistan, November 2009 (USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Keller)

In 2013, the US authorities for the first time mentioned that the KC-10 should be retired from active service. At that time, it was estimated the process should began in 2015 and was considered as part of reduction of the USAF operating costs. However, the USAF managed to postpone the withdrawal of its trimotor tanker for a few years. The first KC-10 was officially retired only in July of 2020.

At that time, it seemed the USAF manages to keep its fleet of trijet tankers for several years and their withdrawal would be a long process. The main argument in favour of the KC-10 was the aircraft was equipped with both boom and hose-and-drogue refuelling systems. On the other hand, the USAF has just introduced into service its new air-to-air refuelling aeroplane, Boeing KC-46 Pegasus. Therefore, keeping three different tankers in active service was declared ineffective.

In July of 2021, the 2nd ARS became the first KC-10 squadron of the USAF to begin conversion to the KC-46. A few months later, the RNLAF retired its two KDC-10 and replaced them with Airbus A330 MRTT. The Dutch trijets were then acquired by Omega Aerial Refueling Services, a private venture providing aerial refuelling services for military customers.

It should be noted here that Omega already operated a trimotor tanker since 2008. It was converted from the DC-10 airliner the company bought from JAL airline. The aircraft was re-built into KDC-10 configuration with two wing-mounted refuelling pods (click here to learn more about that aeroplane).

A KC-10A aircraft, tail number 84-0185, after arrival to March Air Reserve Base for demilitarization. After that procedure, the aeroplane will be showcased as an exhibit at the nearby March Field Air Museum (452nd Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs photo by Wendy Day, August 2023, cropped)

In January of 2023 the USAF informed about withdrawal of all remaining KC-10 Extender tankers until September of 2024. In October of 2023, the official media service of the Department of Defense (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service – DVIDS) released a set of photographs taken at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The pictures featured the KC-10 Extender assigned to the 908th Expeditionary ARS during the final combat sortie of that type of aircraft with the USAF service.

With beginning of this year, the KC-10 retirement procedure gained the momentum. Currently, the aircraft are being withdrawn from the 9th ARS, being a part of the 60th Air Mobility Wing from Travis Air Force Base in California. The unit operates the trijet tankers since 1982 and its primary areas of operation were the Indo-Pacific region, Alaska and Antarctica. In the mid-January, one of the KC-10s from the 9th ARS performed a farewell tour around Australia and New Zealand.

At the same time, at Travis Air Force Base, the Squadron leaders said goodbye to the KC-10 Extender that was designated as the 9th ARS flagship. Following the historical meaning of that term, the flagship referred to a ship that carried the commander of a naval feet, deeming it the most important. And that was exactly the role of that specific KC-10 within the 9th ARS.

Currently, the 60th AMW and its 6th and 9th Squadrons are prepared for the future transition to the KC-46 Pegasus. The first aircraft of that type have already arrived to Travis AFB in August of 2023.

Retirement of the 9th ARS flagship – USAF Staff Sgt. Jacob St. George, 373rd Training Squadron Detachment, directs the KC-10A Extender on the flight line at Travis Air Force Base, 11 Jan 2024 (USAF photo by Kenneth Abbate)

Cover photo: 9th Air Refueling Squadron retires its KC-10A flagship, 11 Jan 2024 (USAF photo by Kenneth Abbate, cropped)
All photos © U.S. Department of Defence (DoD). DoD information materials were used, in compliance with Public Domain licence. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.