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Friday, June 30, 2023

Farewell to the Armadillo Express


Its attractive design unmistakable, aircraft 84-0188 is prepared by McGuire team members for the refueling jet’s flight into retirement at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona – the last of the New Jersey base’s fleet of McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 Extender refueling planes.


Anybody you talk to about the KC-10 – pilot, flight engineer, boom operator, maintainer – there’s definitely a pride about this airplane, that it was very special. Most of us feel that the KC-10 has several more years, even decades, left in her. That she’s being retired before her time is what I think hurts most in the crew force…”

Lt. Col. Adam Waite was speaking about the imminent retirement of the unique three-engine McDonnell-Douglas KC-10 Extender refueling/cargo aircraft, a plane with a curvaceous profile that generated the humorous descriptor “Big Sexy.”

Waite’s words came with a definite hint of sadness. It was June 21, 2023, and the very next day the last KC-10 assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey would take to the skies a final time, bound for what will essentially be interment at the “Boneyard” – Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

In a final moment of public glory, the KC-10 nicknamed “Armadillo Express” roars over tens of thousands of people gathered for 2023’s “Power in the Pines” airshow at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.


Waite – on the verge of retiring as a military pilot - knew well of what he spoke, for he himself had recently flown the next-to-the-last of McGuire’s KC-10s (an aircraft nicknamed “The Gambler”) to its final resting place, a last journey for the pilot after 15 years at the controls of KC-10s.

“I flew 79-1711 to the Boneyard at the end of May, and that was significant for me because it was my final flight,” Waite explained. “It was bittersweet, because for me, on one side it was a great flight, with beautiful weather. I could not have asked for a better final flight, or a fini-flight as we call them in the Air Force. But at the same time, it was sad to know that it was the last flight for that aircraft, and it was just going to be parked with the other KC-10s you could see sitting in the AZ desert.

“15 years in my career…” He paused thoughtfully. “I consider it, out of all the planes I flew, my favorite aircraft of everything.”


“Big Sexy” languidly sails through ethereal late afternoon skies in October 2022.


Waite spoke of the experience in a conference room at McGuire as hundreds of people – many of whom had flown in KC-10s or supported their missions from this USAF base – gathered in a hanger nearby for what was billed as the “KC-10 Farewell & Final Salute.”

The crowds gather to applaud the guest of honor at the “KC-10 Farewell & Final Salute.”

While Lt. Col. Waite knows the KC-10 about as well as you can know an aircraft, TSgt. Tiffany Irby also knows the KC-10 extremely well. But her experience came from the other end of the aircraft, logging years as a boom operator.

“This is where a big part of my career is,” Irby said of the KC-10. “There is a lot of sadness. Seeing something that I’ve spent close to a decade on, and then closing that chapter. And I know people who’ve spent their entire career on it, and are definitely sad to see it go.”


McGuire’s KC-10 0433 retired from active service on March 26, 2022 and was incorporated into the USAF Air Mobility Command Museum at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base.


The increasing USAF dependence on the newer KC-46 Pegasus generates a big change in refueling parameters for boom operators. The control stations for the KC-46 operators are located directly behind the aircraft flight deck, refueling accomplished via monitors and data input. Gone are the boom controls at the rear of the aircraft found in the KC-135s and KC-10s, where the operators had windows providing a direct view of the plane being fueled in a tanker’s wake.

“Of course, having a window is always going to be the perfect thing,” Irby believes. “I had the opportunity to fly on the 46, and its system is not where it needs to be just yet. But the next system that will be coming online is definitely going to be a good one. The program managers said it was close to having your eyes looking out that window and when I got to test it out, it was actually pretty nice.”

Beyond refueling, Irby brought up a significant aspect of the KC10s’ contributions to military operations: its range and cargo capabilities.

“We were a little more restricted dimensionally than the C-17 or C-5,” she admitted, “but on joint efforts with the Marines or Army we can take their guys and their crews and their cargo. For example, if they have an exercise in Utah, we can take everything they need out there. A lot of the time we were working with all of the active-duty Guards across the Northeast, but we could go anywhere we needed to, with a 4400 mile radius.”

“We could carry up to 170,000 pounds in a purely cargo configuration, which is almost on par with the C-17, in a weight-for-weight comparison,” noted Lt. Col. Waite of the KC-10’s capabilities. “The limitations would just be for volume or dimensions. Pound for pound, though, we were right up there with the C-17.

“If we were doing a fighter drag, then we can do 2000 to 2500 miles to take a group of, say, four fighters across the ocean,” he continued. “We could go from the East Coast over to Europe, or the West Coast over the Pacific to Hawaii. That would be a typical range for us. A lot of operations over water. The KC-10s bread and butter was the over-water fighter drags where we have the significant amount of fuel so we can do that with just a single airplane. Our fuel capacity was almost double that of the KC-135, and roughly 50% more than the 46.”


26,000 feet over Aerospace Perceptions headquarters in New Castle DE, a KC-10 from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst drags an F-15 fighter during refueling operations in August 2022.


Though Waite had flown his final KC-10 flight, TSgt. Irby had one mission remaining: to accompany KC-10 84-0188 – a plane nicknamed “Armadillo Express” – as the last Extender flight out of McGuire, the day after the farewell ceremony. Among a select group of passengers would be Lt Gen James Jacobson, Deputy Commander, Pacific Air Forces – a man with over 4000 flying hours, including time spent at the controls of the KC-10.

But for the final flight, Armadillo Express would be piloted by Maj. Joshua Gorring – a pilot relatively new to flying the KC-10.


Maj. Joshua Gorring stands with the Armadillo Express on the day before the KC-10s final flight, one to be piloted by Gorring.


“I haven’t been a pilot on the KC-10 for very long,” Gorring reveals. “I came here in August 2021, and I immediately went off to training. So really, I’ve been qualified for about a year and a half as a pilot on the KC-10.”

In the grand scheme of things, Gorring flying KC-10s at McGuire was remarkably appropriate.

“I started my career as a KC-10 boom operator back in 2005 – same squadron, same base. So, it’s really a full circle for me,” he smiled.

Assigned to the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron - one of the oldest in the United States Air Force, with origins dating 1917 – Gorring had extensive flight duty between his KC-10 bookends. After transitioning from the boom operator duties into flight training, he piloted C-17 Globemasters for several years. Eventually, he took on advanced training responsibilities of new tanker and airlift pilots as a flight instructor piloting the T-1A Jayhawk for three years at Vance AFB, Oklahoma, before his return to the realm of the KC-10.

Gorring spoke of the need to be ready for anything while providing critical refueling capabilities in the KC-10.

“It comes down to looking at that other aircraft coming into refuel,” he explains. “Are they bouncing around? Are we bouncing around? What does it look like? I’ve been in situations where we’re in bad weather, but it’s as smooth as can be and you make contact. Yet it can be a clear day, and the plane is bouncing around all over the place. Or maybe someone’s having a bad day, or maybe they’re new and it’s their first time behind a KC-10. Scenarios, or even malfunctions - when you’re behind another aircraft, there are so many things that can happen.”

Gorring notes that the KC-10 played well with some, presented challenges to others.

“Like you’d expect from a heavy aircraft, the wake comes down and away from the aircraft,” he said of the big plane in flight. “But what’s nice for the receivers, as they’re coming up from behind us, with our two engines on the side it almost acts like a barrier, to keep them in between and let them almost bounce off the exhaust. It helps keep them in place. Where there’s a struggle typically is with the number two engine (mounted above the fuselage), where the exhaust is vectored basically right toward their aircraft. C-17s, for example, will have difficulty with that exhaust and it forces them into different positions. As you would expect, two aircraft that close together disrupt a lot of air.”

KC-10 0188 on the McGuire runway in the distance between two F-16s of the USAF Viper Demo Team.


Though he had moved to the flight deck of the KC-10 as a pilot, Gorring’s time as a boom operator has flavored his thoughts about the rapidly changing parameters of aerial refueling, from the KC-46’s boom operator being fully dependent on technology to the idea of autonomous refueling, a topic covered in a recent Aerospace Perceptions article.

“As a boom operator previously in my career, I’m the person who’s sitting back there watching and physically controlling things. Then to go to computer screens and to then potentially go completely autonomous – it’s interesting,” he admits. “But personally, I preferred sitting in the back looking out my window, because I could see the planes and everything that was happening in real time, live, right in front of me. But we’ve made so many different advancements in our technology that it almost seems autonomy is an inevitable course of advancement. But I don’t know if you can take the person out of the aircraft and get the results you’re looking for.

“I really think there has to be someone actually there monitoring the systems, and someone who can intervene in real time if something goes wrong,” he cautions. “Who would initiate breakaways, if we have to separate the two aircraft quickly? Is it a system decision, or is someone monitoring operations and they make the determination there’s an unsafe situation? How is that called, how is it initiated?”


A last salute from personnel at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst sends the final KC-10 to its concluding takeoff. (Photo by Senior Airman Sergio Avalos, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs)


By the time those questions for the future are answered, the KC-10 Extender will have long been retired. And, after flying Armadillo Express to its final landing in Arizona, Gorring himself plans to leave the world of refueling and return to training future aviators.

“I started my Air Force career right here in this location and in the same squadron, and now I’m part of the crew flying that aircraft away,” Gorring says quietly. “Maybe being part of that experience will bring about a little closure for me, but it’s a bittersweet moment. This plane has been with us for so long. It’s been a workhorse. It’s done so many things, so many missions and operations… To see it go? Yes, it’s bittersweet.”

Rising into the skies over New Jersey with all three engines roaring, the Armadillo Express makes one final glorious ascension. (Photo by Senior Airman Sergio Avalos, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs)

Ironically, just five days after the last KC-10 departed Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the USAF celebrated 100 years of aerial refueling with Operation Centennial Contact. The skies of America were filled with dozens upon dozens of refueling tankers and the aircraft that benefit from their services. Of course, McGuire contributed an impressive array of KC-46, C-17, and KC-135 aircraft to the celebration. But the reliable and capable KC-10 Extender? Sadly, it was well on its way to becoming just a memory.



 In the top two of these three images from Operation Centennial Contact, the two-engine KC-46 Pegasus – the refueling aircraft that is essentially replacing the KC-10 - leads the workhorse C-17 Globemaster in a simulated refueling formation. In the third image, a KC-135 Stratotanker heads south over Aerospace Perceptions headquarters in New Castle, Delaware. The KC-135 first flew in 1956 – a full 25 years before the now-retiring KC-10 Extender entered into service.

All photos except where otherwise credited: Frank Moriarty/Aerospace Perceptions

Click on photos to see larger images.