A tail of two 'cities': Tanker joins ranks of 100th ARW heritage, becomes 'Square-D Away'

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on what it takes to reassign an aircraft.

Aircraft tail number 10267 became officially "Square-D Away" Oct. 21, 2015, when a KC-135 Stratotanker, formerly from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, underwent the final stage of a transformation to become reassigned to RAF Mildenhall's fleet.

After facilitating necessary structural repairs on the jet during an isochronal inspection, which is similar to a major tune-up on a vehicle, the process of removing the old markings and applying the Square D tailflash then began.

From start to finish, the process of reassigning the tanker took 112 hours, with a minimum of three Airmen working on the tailflash throughout the first 40 hours, according to Tech. Sgt. Mark James, 100th Maintenance Squadron Aircraft Structural Maintenance NCO in charge.

Previously, the tail was removed as part of a fin-fold, to fix a cracked bracket discovered during the inspection, and it was decided that the easiest way to accomplish this was to temporarily remove the tail.

James explained that hangar and aircraft preparation takes six hours; sanding and masking, six hours; primer application, eight hours, including six hours curing time; applying the top coat, 14 hours, including 12 hours curing time; masking and stencil placement, four hours, followed by a two-hour application of flat black - the square painted box on top of which the 'D' decal is placed, which together form the Square D. Finally, there's a full cure of a further 72 hours.

Once the hangar is prepared for aircraft painting, the markings from the previous base must be removed by mechanical means, such as sanding, said Tech. Sgt. Jake Bond, 100th MXS Corrosion Control NCO in charge.

"This is the most laborious part of the process and usually where we run into the problem of finding another base's markings under the previous base's markings," commented Bond. "Next, we apply an epoxy primer, followed by a polyurethane gray topcoat over the areas that were sanded."

He added that stencils are then applied, which will be painted on along with the decals.

"The final step is applying the 'Square D' on either side of the vertical fin. It takes about nine to 10 people across three different shifts, plus a weekend crew, to complete the process," Bond said.

The Square D - an infamous part of 100th Air Refueling Wing's heritage with the 100th Bombardment Group - is a decal made by the corrosion control shop.

"We have a machine in corrosion that cuts out the decals on vinyl stickers. It takes about 30 minutes per side once it's taped off," explained James, describing how they follow technical order guidance to ensure it's placed in the exact spot on the tail, using rulers to measure exactly how far from the top of the tail and front to back.

Bond added that the corrosion control shop has two machines which aid in producing decals. One is specifically for producing large-scale graphic decals such as the stars and stripes and RAF Mildenhall's station patch located at the tip of the vertical fin.

"This machine is also used for production of the 100th ARW heritage patch, applied to the nose of the aircraft," he said. "Our other machine is a vinyl plotter, used to cut lettering and stencils - such as the white letter 'D' applied to the fin. Both machines are controlled from a single desktop computer with graphic design software, and the placement of all markings is governed by specific dimensions given in both technical orders and Air Force instructions."

Even when moving from base to base, aircraft keep the tail number assigned to them when rolled off the production line for their entire lifespan.

James explained that the purpose of swapping a jet between bases has to do with keeping it from possibly staying in a highly corrosive environment for the duration of its service life.

"Some bases are in more corrosive areas, so aircraft are swapped out to less corrosive bases to keep them from rusting," he said.

As with Airmen, aircraft are on a schedule and swapped out after a certain amount of time on station, which means while the 100th ARW received a "new" tanker, it replaced another which rotated out, so the number of aircraft in RAF Mildenhall's fleet remains the same.

Having the chance to be part of the process which marks a tanker as the 100th ARW's own, by application of the Square D to its tail, lengthens RAF Mildenhall's heritage, and instills a sense of pride in Airmen working on the aircraft.

"I remember reading about the 100th Bomb Group's missions during World War II as a teenager," recalled Bond. "I had no idea that one day I would be a part of that unit's lineage, so for me to be a direct part of applying the 100th ARW and heritage markings to each KC-135 that is newly assigned here is quite surreal.

"There's an immense amount of coordination that has to happen for each of these tailflash changes. It's a good feeling to be a part of that, to see the final product which will be seen by other pilots and people all over this part of the world," he added proudly. "Whenever I see a photo of an aircraft being refueled by a boom with '100th ARW' on the ruddevators, I think, 'Hey - I probably know who put those on there!"

Editor's note: Part 1 of this series can be found here