When 2606 first arrived in Sioux City, Air Guard crew chiefs named it “Free Bird” as a patriotic themed name borrowed from the 1970’s southern rock ballad by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Last year as the 185th celebrated their 75th anniversary, 2606 was chosen to be decorated with a retro gothic bat tail flash similar to what appeared on the unit’s F-16 fighter jets during the 1990’s.
The ripple effect of the new KC-46 coming on line has units around the Air Force shuffling legacy KC-135s around while others are being mothballed.
The main contributing factor to retiring a particular aircraft boils down to projected cost of maintenance. Due to its age and flight hours the 185th aircraft was selected to be the first of 15 Stratotankers to be pulled from the Air Force inventory during the current round of decommissioning.
The old aircraft was initially assigned to the 72nd Bomb Wing during 1950s and 60’s at the now defunct Ramey AFB in Puerto Rico. During the decade of the 70s the Statotanker was part of the 449th Bomb Wing at Kincheloe AFB in Michigan where it stood ready with the unit’s B-52s.
The globetrotting tanker had been captured by tail spotters around the world during its 15 year stint in Sioux City. Because of constant care and robust maintenance, when 2606 retires it will have flown over 25,000 hours and landed almost 10,000 times. Parts of 2606 will continue to live on as they are dispersed from the boneyard where they will help keep a shrinking KC-135 fleet aloft for years to come.
Video credit: Senior Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot