For the first time, a US Air Force (USAF) Boeing B-52 strategic bomber has received fuel in-flight from a non-military tanker.

The milestone, which occurred in March but was disclosed by the USAF on 5 April, involved a McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker operated by US private contractor Omega Air Refueling Services.

Omega’s KDC-10 is a modified DC-10-40 passenger jet. The company operates three of the type.

Omega tanker KDC-10 c Omega Tanker

Source: Omega Tanker/US Air Force

An Omega Tanker KDC-10 air refueller completed the first in-flight fuel transfer to a US Air Force B-52 bomber by a contracted, non-military aircraft, on 10 March

Without disclosing a specific location, the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) headquarters says the pioneering flight took place somewhere within the command’s area of responsibility.

In addition to refueling the B-52, which was assigned to the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, Omega’s KDC-10 topped off a Lockheed Martin MC-130J special-operations transport – another first.

Omega KDC-10 with USAF F-16s c USAF

Source: US Air Force

An Omega KDC-10 in 2023 completed the first-ever contracted air-to-air refuelling of US Air Force fighters, including the F-16, F-15 and F-22 types

“These types of missions significantly advance total-force-power projection capabilities and exponentially increase readiness,” says Colonel Jon Baize, chief of contingency operations at PACAF.

Baize adds that using contracted air refuelling services helps mitigate a deficit of tanker assets – a particular concern in the sprawling Indo-Pacific region.

“Commercial air is a must for US Indo-Pacific Command operations given the nature of the theatre,” says Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Spinelli, commander of the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron. “Having an additional means and capacity depth in our air refuelling and logistical movements is critical to success.”

While the US Navy (USN) has been using contracted tanker services as far back as 2007, the USAF has been slower to adopt the practise. With Omega as a contractor, the service only completed its first commercial aerial refuelling of USAF fighter aircraft in November 2023.

In that instance, a KDC-10 transferred fuel to Boeing F-15Cs and Lockheed F-16s and F-22s during US exercises over East Asia.

B-52 cockpit approaching KDC-10 tanker

Source: US Air Force

Omega obtained two boom-equipped KDC-10s in 2019, allowing the company to service US Air Force aircraft, including the B-52 bomber

Omega obtained its first DC-10 passenger jet from Japan Airlines in 2006, converting the airliner to a tanker and receiving airworthiness certification from the USN in 2008. That first KDC-10 was equipped with a hose-and-drogue fuel transfer system, including both centreline and twin wing-pod capabilities.

Omega subsequently obtained two more KDC-10s from the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 2019. These were equipped with a fuel transfer boom – the preferred method of the USAF. The company also operates two Boeing KC-707 tankers.

Omega aircraft have also been certificated to refuel Bell-Boeing V-22 tiltrotors, Lockheed F-35B and C variants, Northrop Grumman E-2Ds and Boeing F/A-18s.

The company says it can provide tanker services for any aircraft or service capable of probe-and-drogue and boom refuelling.