TAMPA — In his first days of repairing the KC-135 Stratotanker, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jerry King was a little intimidated.
Wires seemed to be jammed into every open space, looping endlessly. The fuselage was new when Eisenhower was president.
"You wonder," the 26-year-old said, "how something so old can still fly."
The Air Force's top procurement goal is replacing the 1950s-era fleet of Stratotankers, including the 16 at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. But a recent decision to redo a flawed bid process delayed a contract for the KC-135 replacement and underscored an Air Force adage:
The Stratotanker's last pilot has not been born yet.
The Air Force is relying ever more heavily on the teams of repair and maintenance people who keep the plane flying. At MacDill, about 400 people are assigned the task.
"We've really gotten our money's worth from the Stratotanker," said Lt. Rebecca Heyse, a MacDill spokeswoman.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said the Air Force has told him MacDill will get up to 36 of whatever aircraft is eventually designed to replace the nation's 500 Stratotankers.
But the Air Force expects some of its Boeing-made Stratotankers, now averaging about 50 years of age, to be flying into their 80s.
The Stratotanker actually flies more today than it did during the Cold War, thanks to the pace of military operations in the Middle East.
In the late 1950s, the KC-135 more often sat on a runway on standby, ready to fly on a moment's notice if the Soviet Union ever launched its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The capability to refuel is the very backbone of the modern Air Force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, refueling aircraft are almost always in the sky, gas stations miles in the air.
But keeping it aloft isn't simple.
Parts are harder to find. In some cases, the Air Force has said, it is forced to build them. A plane graveyard in Arizona is often raided for spare parts unavailable elsewhere.
Metal fatigue is a constant worry, especially in Florida's corrosive saltwater air. So at MacDill, each Stratotanker undergoes a thorough washing every month.
"Look, it's an antique," said Senior Master Sgt. Greg Kuhn, 43, a maintenance superintendent at MacDill.
But then again, that can be part of the fun.
Ground crews speak of a peculiar affection for the old gray bird, talking of the Stratotanker in almost reverential tones, as if it were some beloved family patriarch in a rocking chair on the back porch.
There is professional pride in keeping something flying well past its expected lifespan.
"It's like an old car," said Senior Airman Luke Johnson, 21, who works on the KC-135's engines. "Change the tires. Check the oil. Take care of it, and it lasts forever."
Air Force analysts have complained that one fleet-wide defect on such an old aircraft has the potential to ground all KC-135s, making the replacement all the more urgent.
Kuhn doesn't buy that. If anything, he said, a plane that has been flying so long offers few surprises.
Staff Sgt. Alan Culpepper, 33, a crew chief at MacDill, said he loves the Stratotanker and isn't itching for a brand-new jet off the dealer's lot. A new plane offers no challenge.
What if nothing breaks? "My people will lose their proficiency," Culpepper said.
After watching airmen in one 1958-vintage Stratotanker dig through rolls of wires looking for a short, Culpepper soaked it all in with a smile, knowing nothing lasts forever.
"Yeah, they're old," he said. "But they do the job still. You've got to give it respect for that."