PORTSMOUTH — As the Air National Guard in Portsmouth prepares to receive 12 KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft, crew members are saying goodbye to their fleet of KC-135R Stratotankers.

“It’s a bit sad,” Chief Boom Operator Michael George said. “Especially for some of us that have been flying a while; we’ve been getting sentimental.”

George, who is 56, had his final refueling mission aboard a KC-135 last Tuesday. The next day, he was helping to take one of the few remaining aircraft at Pease to Alabama.

“I guess it kind of parallels the sunset of my career and the sunset of my mission,” George said.

On March 24, the last KC-135 will leave Pease as the base prepares to accept the fleet of KC-46A tankers. They are scheduled to receive three planes per month starting at the end of September or beginning of October.

Col. Paul Loiselle is in charge of the KC-46A conversion. He explained that since Pease was chosen to receive the new planes in 2012, there have been a number of construction projects to retrofit the base, including a hangar expansion.

The KC-46 is 15 percent larger than the KC-135, which allows for more fuel capacity, three times the cargo and built-in aero-medical evacuation capabilities.

Plane crew

Pilots Brian Carloni and Toby Pellenz check their paperwork before taking a KC-135 Stratotanker to Alabama on March 6, 2019. Pease is preparing to receive 12 new KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft this fall.

Loiselle said that since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Air National Guard’s mission has changed, and members now serve in an operational rather than a strategic capacity.

“Pease is at the forefront of that change,” Loiselle said. “Over the last seven years, Pease has flown more operational hours per plane than any other guard base or active-duty base.”

Pease is critical to refueling missions in Europe and Southeast Asia, Loiselle said.

Before the new planes arrive, crew members will be training. Pilots and boom operators will travel to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas and Oklahoma’s Altus Air Force Base, which have already started to receive KC-46A tankers from Boeing.

Pilots Brian Carloni and Toby Pellenz said they are excited to fly the new planes because they have modern comforts such as air conditioning.

“When you are in the desert and it’s 140 degrees in the cabin, it’s just brutal,” Pellenz said.

Carloni and Pellenz said the new fleet will also feature major upgrades in automation. The KC-135s are about 60 years old.

Staff Sgt. Joe DiPalma said there will be some friendly competition as crew members figure out how the KC-46A differs from the KC-135.

Loiselle said on March 24 the oldest KC-135 being flown today in the Air Force will be the last plane to leave Pease. A private ceremony for retired military members will be held. Tail number 57-1419, the oldest KC-135 in the U.S. Air Force inventory and the last tanker at Pease, is scheduled to depart for Goldwater ANGB in Phoenix following the ceremony, according to a news release.

A public ceremony is being planned for when the KC-46A tankers arrive this fall.