A KB-50J in Florida is being transported to the AMC Museum
The Air Mobility Command Museum is set to add another “first, last and only” to its fleet of aircraft.
In mid-December the museum began receiving parts of a KB-50J refueling aircraft. Originally a B-50 Superfortress, it was an upgraded version of the B-29 Superfortress used in the Pacific during World War II.
This particular aircraft was converted from a bomber to an aerial tanker in the 1950s, hence the “KB” designation. Bombers are designated with the letter “B,” while tankers have a “K” prefix.
AMCM Director John Taylor said this is the oldest remaining aircraft to be converted from a bomber to a tanker. It’s the last type of aerial refueler used by the Air Force to find a home at the museum, and it will make the AMCM the only place to feature all three tankers used by the Air Force.
“The AMCM is unquestionably the single most appropriate location for this historic aircraft,” Taylor said. “We already have identified a preliminary display position, placing this historic aircraft in line with the two other AMCM tankers, a KC-97 Stratofreighter, and a KC-135 Stratotanker.”
Having all three allows the museum to display a lineage of 60 years of strategic and tactical air refueling, Taylor said.
“The addition of the KB-50 would give the AMCM the largest collection of tankers in the USA,” he added.
The “J” designation means the aircraft is one of 112 KB-50s upgraded with two jet engines in addition to its four 28-cylinder radial engines. The conversion gave rise to the “four turning, two burning” moniker used by aircraft crews and maintenance engineers.
But before it can go on display outside the museum, located on Route 9 south of the base, the KB-50J first must make the trip to Dover. For that, the 67-year-old airplane needs a little help.
A ‘highly corrosive environment’
Dover’s new KB-50J spent the last 22 years displayed at a memorial air park on MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa, said Steven Ove, historian for the base’s 6th Air Mobility Wing.
“The base commander of MacDill at the time, Col. Charles T. Ohlinger III, and the airpark committee had a vision to expand the park with aircraft to represent each era of the base’s history,” Ove said. “Once the landscaping of the park was finished, the KB-50J found its way to MacDill in 1995.”
But changes in operations at MacDill meant military maintenance technicians were no longer there, and responsibility for its upkeep was left to contractors, Ove said.
Over time, it was increasingly evident the plane’s condition was deteriorating due to salty air and humidity.
“Maintaining the historic static display aircraft in our highly corrosive environment is destructive to these irreplaceable artifacts,” Ove said. “Additionally, the aircraft needs to be restored every so often, and it isn’t very cost-effective for the base.”
Plans to reduce maintenance costs by turning the airpark into a community park meant the KB-50J and an F-16 Fighting Falcon needed to go.
A restoration challenge
AMCM restoration chief Les Polley is in charge of rehabilitating the KB-50J and getting it ready for display at the museum. A retired USAF master sergeant, Polley has more than 20 years experience in structural repair work.
“Out at MacDill, it was sitting really close to the water and out in the elements,” he said. “We wanted to bring it here and fit it into our collection.”
In early December, crews from Worldwide Aircraft of Springfield, Mo., started dismantling the KB-50J. The horizontal stabilizer and the tail arrived just before Christmas, brought to Dover by C-5M crews using the work as a training opportunity.
The rest will remain in storage until airlifted to Delaware. They’re expected to arrive by the end of February.
“The deal is they take it apart and put it back together and then we start restoration,” Polley said. “We’ll be looking it over structurally and working to stop any corrosion, depending on the type and where it is.”
Polley realized a lot of work needs to be done after his first look at the horizontal stabilizer. Structural supports inside were seriously corroded, meaning they’ll have to be replaced. Parts of each aileron -- the small flaps on the rear -- need to be rebuilt due to water damage.
Restoration crews can use chemicals to stop deterioration, but in some areas the damage is so severe new parts must be fabricated to bring the plane up to Air Force standards for heritage aircraft display.
How long it will be until a restored KB-50J sits on the ramp is one question Polley can’t answer yet. He said that while this aircraft never will fly again, the idea is to make it look like it’s ready to take to the air.
“We’re looking to eventually restore the exterior and interior of the aircraft,” he said. That includes rebuilding the cockpit and replacing any missing instrumentation. People will be able to come in and they’ll get a walk back in time by seeing what the actual aircraft looked like.”
It’s a job his restoration experts have managed before.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s part of the challenge for the restoration guys to figure out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to pull it off.”
This article includes information provided by Airman 1st Class Ashley Perdue of the 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs office at MacDill AFB, Florida.