MILWAUKEE — Celebrating its service of 60 years in the U.S. Air Force, the KC-135 Stratotanker is a military aircraft whose capabilities and effectiveness have withstood the test of time.
In 1957, the U.S. Air Force distributed its first fleet of KC-135s to bases nationwide. On Dec. 7, 1977, the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) was assigned its first KC-135 Model A. During its time at the 128th ARW, the KC-135A has gone through two modification updates — Model E and Model R. During these upgrades, the interior and technology of the aircraft was modernized, yet the structural integrity has remained the same since its production. Because of the KC-135's long-standing history at the 128th ARW, several family generations have worked with the aircraft.
Master Sgt. Peter Gauerke, a boom operator with the 128th ARW, has served here for 26 years and follows in the footsteps of his father. Senior Master Sgt. Earl Gauerke, a retired boom operator, served from 1952 to 1988, with the majority of his service at the 128th ARW.
"I remember having family dinners in the aircrew break room before my father would go on a flight," Gauerke said. "I remember thinking that those aircrafts were so cool and I wanted to fly in one."
In his final year of high school, Gauerke enlisted into the 128th ARW.
"I enlisted at 17 just like my dad did and our careers have been nearly identical," Gauerke continued. "We both started off in the Maintenance Group, transferred to being a boom operator, and I plan to retire doing the job just like he did."
Even with operating through two family generations, Gauerke said that the KC-135 is as reliable as ever. He recalls seeing the old spinning dials on the control panel, yet today nearly all the avionic systems are computerized.
With 60 years of service under its wing, it's no surprise that the KC-135 holds sentimental value for the Airmen who have worked with it.
"There's so much history with these aircrafts," Gauerke explained. "From my father retiring with the aircraft, to knowing I'm going to retire on it, and the possibility that my nephew [Staff Sgt. Bret Koth, an Airmen with the 128th ARW Maintenance Squadron] may retire off of it, it's incredible."
Over the past fiscal year, the 128th ARW KC-135s flew approximately 2,800 hours, transporting 13,130,000 pounds of fuel and 794,434 pounds of cargo. Because the 128th ARW aircrafts are in high demand, routine maintenance is essential for ensuring the aircraft's effectiveness.
Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Kuspa, the inspection element supervisor with the 128th ARW, has served for 25 years, yet his familiarity with the KC-135 dates back to his childhood. Kuspa is the son of retired aircraft maintenance squadron superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Dennis Kuspa, who served with the 128th ARW from 1957 to 1999.
"My father saw the transformation of the 128th and the variations of aircrafts we've had from the F-89 Fighters down to our current model, the KC-135R," said Kuspa. "It's awesome knowing that I am working on the same 10 aircraft my father worked on many years ago."
Like Gauerke, Kuspa also states his career and his father's are nearly identical, with both jobs focused on inspecting and maintaining the aircrafts. When asked about the age of the aircraft, Kuspa replied that the age was only a number.
"Because the KC-135 is a 60-year-old aircraft, people may compare it to a 60-year-old car or other outdated technology, but that just not true," Kuspa said. "Every internal piece on the aircraft has been updated and modified. So although it's still the same 60-year-old aircraft, it has all the improvements in aviation and technology of modern aircrafts."
Many Airmen and their families have served side-by-side since the KC-135 was manufactured, and it's the hard work, pride and dedication of these same Airmen that will secure the KC-135's position at the forefront of preserving America's freedom.
"The KC -135 is not only a testament to the engineers of this aircraft, but also to the maintainers that keep them in flawless condition," Kuspa said. "Particularly at the 128th, the KC-135s here are some of the best. I've been all around the world, have deployed with every service branch, and none are as well maintained as ours. And it's because of generations such as my father's, mine, and the generations to come having pride in this aircraft that will keep it flying for decades to come."