Military Factory logo
Icon of F-15 Eagle military combat fighter aircraft
Icon of Abrams Main Battle Tank
Icon of AK-47 assault rifle
Icon of navy warships
Icon of a dollar sign
Icon of military officer saluting
National Flag Graphic

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker

Airborne Refueling Tanker / Special Mission Military Aircraft


Systems such as the KC-135 have evolved air combat throughout the decades.

Detailing the development and operational history of the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker Airborne Refueling Tanker / Special Mission Military Aircraft.  Entry last updated on 3/18/2019. Authored by Staff Writer. Content ©
The KC-135 "Stratotanker" became a notable aircraft product for the Boeing Company primarily in offering the United States Air Force (USAF) unparalleled war-planning capabilities and logistics support through in-flight refueling and transportation. Furthermore, the KC-135 tanker airframe became the basis for the C-135 "Stratolifter" strategic transport and the commercial 707 civilian airliner. Total production of Stratotankers reached 803 from the period spanning 1955 until 1965. This series aircraft continues to serve the USAF, and other allied nations, with its critical support capabilities.

The KC-135 series succeeded the KC-97 Stratofreighter in the aerial refueling role.

Inflight refueling was pioneered during the Cold War period (1947-1991) and streamlined with the arrival of larger jet-powered aircraft. This result allowed military warplanners an unprecedented global reach when dictating the actions of their forces. To this day, in-flight refueling remains a large part of the success of any one air power, especially when dealing with activities over large distances, and is critical to the scope of USAF operations around the world. Consider that it also requires a steady hand-and-eye for airmen and tanker crews alike to complete the precision process required of refueling a combat warplane in-air.

Design work began in the early 1950's to fulfill a standing USAF requirement for a new dedicated in-flight refueler with jet-powered performance. The result became the Boeing Model 367-80 demonstrator that, in turn, became the KC-135. The KC-135 featured tanking equipment and an all-Boeing-designed powered boom. Fuel was carried in the belly and wing sections with propulsion power stemming from 4 x CFM International CFM56 turbofan engines. The aircraft typically saw an operating of just four personnel - two pilots, a navigator and a boom operator - though additions could be made when required (for instance five crewmen were featured in the MEDEVAC version).

As designed, the KC-135 (KC-135R) was given a running length of 127.9 feet, a wingspan of 129.7 feet and a height of 38 feet. Its empty weight was 98,465lb against an MTOW of 322,500lb. Maximum speed was 580 miles per hour with a cruise speed near 530 mph. Range was out to 1,500 miles and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet was possible. Rate-of-climb became 4,900 feet-per-minute.

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker (Cont'd)

Airborne Refueling Tanker / Special Mission Military Aircraft

Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker (Cont'd)

Airborne Refueling Tanker / Special Mission Military Aircraft

Modernization programs (including "re-engining" and software upgrades) have propelled the KC-135 series into the new millennium. The platform is still a large factor in global operations involving the USAF and increases the reach of all aircraft on sortie. Other nations rely on the KC-135 series as well, though it has not had quite the impact anywhere else as it has had for U.S. forces traveling the globe.

Operators of the KC-135 family include Chile, France, Singapore and Turkey. Variants include the original KC-135A, the KC-135B Airborne Command Post and the KC-135D. The KC-135E served the Air National Guard and the NKC-135E was a KC-135E converted for tests. The NKC-135N served the United States space program and the E-135N was outfitted with equipment to support the Apollo rocket program. The KC-135Q carried JP-7 fuel for the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spyplane and some 56 were modified to the standard.

The KC-135R were four KC-135A aircraft modified for nuclear reconnaissance and powered by 4 x Pratt & Whitney J57 engines. A later form of the KC-135R were some 361 KC-135A and KC-135E production models with CFM-56 series engines. The KC-135R(RT) was used for secure SATCOM radio transmissions and three were converted from RC-135D production models.

The KC-135T was the KC-135Q with the CFM-56 engines and 54 aircraft were modified to the standard. The EC0135Y was another Airborne Command Post developed in 1984 to support United States Central Command operations. This example was powered by 4 x Pratt & Whitney TF-33-PW-102 series engines.

Since service introduction in 1957, the KC-135 family of special-mission aircraft has served from the Vietnam War years (1955-1975), through to the end of the Cold War (1991), as part of Strategic Air Command (SAC) (1947-1992) and into Operation Allied Force (1999).

The KC-135 series is set to be replaced by the in-development Boeing KC-46 "Pegasus" line detailed elsewhere on this site.

Special thanks to Anthony S of the Boeing Corporation for his input.

Program Updates

November 2018 - Existing USAF KC-135 platforms are now scheduled to receive the same enhanced situational awareness survivability package used in the C-130H model. This will consist of Helmet-Mounted Displays (HMDs), electronic jamming equipment, and Radar Warning Receivers (RWRs).


YEAR: 1957
STATUS: Active, In-Service
MANUFACTURER(S): The Boeing Company - USA
LENGTH: 136.25 ft (41.53 m)
WIDTH: 130.84 ft (39.88 m)
HEIGHT: 41.67 ft (12.7 m)
EMPTY WEIGHT: 106,307 lb (48,220 kg)
MTOW: 322,503 lb (146,285 kg)
POWER: 4 x CFM F108 turbofan engines developing 22,000 lb of thrust each.
SPEED: 610 mph (982 kph; 530 kts)
CEILING: 41,719 feet (12,716 m; 7.9 miles)
RANGE: 2,880 miles (4,635 km; 2,503 nm)
RATE-OF-CLIMB: 1,290 ft/min (393 m/min)
OPERATORS: Chile; France; Singapore; Turkey; United States

Variants / Models

• 367-80 - Demonstrator Model Designation
• KC-135A - Initial USAF Production Model Designation fitted with J57 turbojets.
• KC-135E - Re-engined Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units fitted with TF33 turbofans.
• KC-135FR - Re-engined C-135F Models for French export.
• KC-135Q - Modified KC-135 systems to refuel the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (56 converted as such).
• KC-135T - Re-engined KC-135Q models with F108 powerplants.
• KC-135R - Base KC-135 models re-engined with CFM International F108 (CFM56) turbofan engines.
• C-135 - Military Transport Variant Series Designation.
• C-135F - French Export Variants of which 12 delivered; later re-engined with F108 powerplants becoming KC-135FR designations.
• 707 - Civilian Transport Variant Model Designation.

In the Cockpit

Our Data Modules allow for quick visual reference when comparing a single entry against contemporary designs. Areas covered include general ratings, speed assessments, and relative ranges based on distances between major cities.

Image of collection of graph types

Relative Maximum Speed
Hi: 750mph
Lo: 375mph
This entry's maximum listed speed (610mph).

Graph average of 562.5 miles-per-hour.
City-to-City Ranges
Graph showcases the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker's operational range (on internal fuel) when compared to distances between major cities.
Aviation Era
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Pie graph section
Useful in showcasing the era cross-over of particular aircraft/aerospace designs.
Unit Production (803)
Comm. Market HI*: 44,000 units
Military Market HI**: 36,183 units

  * Commercial Market High belongs to Cessna 172.

  ** Military Market High belongs to Ilyushin Il-2.

Altitude Visualization
Small airplane graphic
Supported Roles
Ground Attack
Aerial Tanker
A2A=Air-to-Air; UAV=Unmanned; CAS=Close Support; ASW=Anti-Submarine; AEW=Airborne Early Warning; MEDEVAC=Medical Evac; EW=Electronic Warfare; SAR=Search-Rescue
Commitments / Honors
Military lapel ribbon for Operation Allied Force
Military lapel ribbon for the Arab-Israeli War
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Britain
Military lapel ribbon for the Battle of Midway
Military lapel ribbon for the Berlin Airlift
Military lapel ribbon for the Chaco War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cold War
Military lapel ribbon for the Cuban Missile Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for pioneering aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the Falklands War
Military lapel ribbon for the French-Indochina War
Military lapel ribbon for the Golden Age of Flight
Military lapel ribbon for the 1991 Gulf War
Military lapel ribbon for the Indo-Pak Wars
Military lapel ribbon for the Iran-Iraq War
Military lapel ribbon for the Korean War
Military lapel ribbon for the 1982 Lebanon War
Military lapel ribbon for the Malayan Emergency
Military lapel ribbon representing modern aircraft
Military lapel ribbon for the attack on Pearl Harbor
Military lapel ribbon for the Six Day War
Military lapel ribbon for the Soviet-Afghan War
Military lapel ribbon for the Spanish Civil War
Military lapel ribbon for the Suez Crisis
Military lapel ribbon for the Vietnam War
Military lapel ribbon for Warsaw Pact of the Cold War-era
Military lapel ribbon for the WASP (WW2)
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 1
Military lapel ribbon for the World War 2
Military lapel ribbon for the Yom Kippur War
Military lapel ribbon for experimental x-plane aircraft
* Ribbons not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective campaigns/operations.

Site Disclaimer  |  Privacy Policy  |  Cookies  |  Site Map Site content ©2003-, All Rights Reserved.

The "Military Factory" name and logo are registered ® U.S. trademarks protected by all applicable domestic and international intellectual property laws. All written content, illustrations, and photography are unique to this website (unless where indicated) and not for reuse/reproduction in any form. Material presented throughout this website is for historical and entertainment value only and should not to be construed as usable for hardware restoration, maintenance, or general operation. We do not sell any of the items showcased on this site. Please direct all other inquiries to militaryfactory AT

Part of a network of sites that includes GlobalFirepower, a data-driven property used in ranking the top military powers of the world, and, the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft.

Facebook Logo YouTube Logo