'One of the two or three most important bases'
Tinker Air Force Base is a lot of different things at once.
The sprawling southeast Oklahoma City installation is the home base for the bulk of the U.S. Air Force's fleet of E-3 Sentry aircraft, which serve as the military's eyes in the sky over battlefields.
It's also the home of the KC-135 Stratotanker, the tanker jet that keeps the Air Force's other planes in the air.
But the biggest, and arguably most important, function the base serves is as the Air Force's garage.
Tinker is the home of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, a 62-building maintenance complex where repairs and upgrades are made on several Air Force planes, including the KC-135 and E-3, as well as the B-52 and B-1 bombers and the C-130 Hercules, the Air Force's workhorse transport plane.
The 8.2 million-square-foot facility is the biggest air logistics center in the U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, one of 10 major commands in the Air Force. The complex's location at Tinker makes the base an indispensable part of the nation's air defense capability, said retired Air Force Col. Mark Tarpley, the Air Force Association's state president for Oklahoma.
“It's one of the two or three most important bases in the Air Force," Tarpley said.
The complex is made up of five groups and eight staff offices, employing more than 9,400 civilian and military personnel in all. One of those groups maintains and overhauls engines for Air Force and Navy planes. Another restores broken aircraft parts to working condition. Yet another develops the software that pilots use to operate planes in flight. In some cases, machinists make parts to repair older planes for which replacement parts aren't available.
The military generally couldn't survive without the complexes and the work they do, not only to overhaul aircraft, but also to provide the logistical, engineering and maintenance support to military service members across the globe on a daily basis, according to two top-ranking officers who served at Tinker.
Such logistics organizations are critical because the military, and especially the Air Force, are using a fleet of vintage aircraft, retired Maj. General David Gillett and retired Lt. Gen. Donald J. Wetekam said. Both men served at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center, the precursor to the present-day air logistics complex.
"When I came into the Air Force in 1973, the average age of the entire Air Force fleet was 9 years,” Wetekam said. “When I retired in 2007, it was 24 years.
"Today, the average age is 27 years, and there are entire fleets that average more than 50 years — the B-52 and the KC-135 (both overhauled at Tinker) are two good examples."
Tinker is expected to take on an even bigger role in maintaining the Air Force's fleet of planes in the coming years, when the new KC-46 Pegasus is operational. The tanker is designed to replace the KC-135, which was brought into service 60 years ago to keep the Air Force's B-52 Stratofortresses in the air at the height of the Cold War.
Tinker will provide maintenance for the KC-46 once the plane is operational. Last year, base officials broke ground on the KC-46 Sustainment Campus, a 158-acre complex that will handle repair, maintenance and overhaul of the tankers.
Although Boeing expects to deliver the first three KC-46 aircraft to the Air Force in September, with more on the way next year, Air Force officials don't expect to phase out the KC-135 for decades. That means the 507th Air Refueling Wing, a U.S. Air Force Reserve unit based at Tinker, likely will be flying the aging tanker for years to come.
The unit has taken an active role in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS. In February, more than 90 airmen returned from a two-month deployment to Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey.
During the deployment, airmen conducted midair refuelings with the B-2 Spirit, the F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Warthog jets in midair and did maintenance work on other KC-135 tankers stationed at the south-central Turkey air base. Another group of airmen from the unit is scheduled to deploy this summer.
The 552nd Air Control Wing, also based at Tinker, is another key part of the fight against ISIS. The wing flies the E-3 Sentry, more commonly known as the AWACS, a 153-foot jet fitted with a radar dome that gives its crew a look at enemy placement and movements within a 250-mile range. A group of 240 airmen from the wing returned from deployment to southwest Asia in November.
Col. David Gaedecke, commander of the wing, said the plane's crew can use the information it collects to direct other aircraft, making them aware of friendly forces and potential threats on the ground.
For instance, Gaedecke said, if a plane is low on fuel, the AWACS crew could direct the pilot toward a tanker nearby. The crew also can warn other planes to steer clear of a particular area where the radar image showed a surface-to-air missile — something that would be difficult for the pilot of a fighter jet to spot.
"Whereas that fighter might be turning this way or that way and only looking in one particular area, we're able to cover a much larger volume with our radar," Gaedecke said.
When airmen from the wing aren't deployed abroad, Gaedecke said they — like airmen from other units across the base — are a part of the fabric of Oklahoma. Military service members tend to move from place to place over the course of their careers, he said, but it's not uncommon to find members of the 552nd who have been in Oklahoma for a decade or more. Many airmen choose to stay in the state after they retire, in part because of the low cost of living and job opportunities, but also because they simply like it here, he said.
“Sometimes I think people look at the military as a transient population," Gaedecke said. "We're just part of Oklahoma."