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KC-10 Extender
Large three-engined aircraft refueling a jet fighter while two more of the latter fly in the distance.
A United States Air Force KC-10 Extender refueling an F-16 Fighting Falcon
Role Tanker/transport
National origin United States
Manufacturer McDonnell Douglas
First flight 12 July 1980
Introduction March 1981
Status In service
Primary users United States Air Force
Royal Netherlands Air Force
Produced KC-10: 1979–1987
Number built KC-10: 60; KDC-10: 2
Unit cost
KC-10: US$88.4 million (FY1998)[1]
Developed from McDonnell Douglas DC-10

The McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender is the military version of the three-engined DC-10 airliner operated by the United States Air Force (USAF).[N 1] The KC-10 incorporates military-specific equipment for its primary roles of aerial refueling and transport. It was developed to supplement the KC-135 Stratotanker following experiences in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The KC-10 was the second McDonnell Douglas transport aircraft to be selected by the Air Force following the C-9. A total of 60 KC-10s were produced for the USAF. The Royal Netherlands Air Force operates two similar tankers designated KDC-10 that were converted from DC-10s.

The KC-10 plays a key role in the mobilization of US military assets, taking part in overseas operations far from home. These aircraft performed airlift and aerial refueling during the 1986 bombing of Libya (Operation Eldorado Canyon), the 1990-91 Gulf War with Iraq (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (Operation Allied Force), War in Afghanistan (Operations Enduring Freedom), and Iraq War (Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn). The KC-10 is expected to serve until 2043, but the USAF is considering an earlier retirement of the fleet.[2]

Design and development

Requirement and design effort

The KC-10 Extender was born out of the need to augment the Air Force's large fleet of more than 700 Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. During the Vietnam War, doubts began to be raised regarding the KC-135s' ability to meet the needs of the US' global commitments. The aerial refueling fleet was deployed to Southeast Asia to support tactical aircraft and strategic bombers, while maintaining the US-based support of the nuclear-bomber fleet. Consequently, the Air Force sought an aerial tanker with greater capabilities than the KC-135. In 1972 two DC-10s were flown in trials at Edwards Air Force Base, simulating air refuelings to check for possible wake issues. Boeing performed similar tests with a 747.[3]

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Air Force commenced Operation Nickel Grass to supply Israel with weapons and supplies. The operation demonstrated the necessity for adequate air-refueling capabilities; denied landing rights in Europe, C-5 Galaxies were forced to carry a fraction of their maximum payload on direct flights from the continental United States to Israel.[4][5] To address this shortfall in mobility, in 1975, under the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft Program, four aircraft were evaluated: the C-5 itself, the Boeing 747, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and the Lockheed L-1011.[6] The only serious contenders were Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. On 19 December 1977, McDonnell Douglas's DC-10 was chosen. The primary reason of this choice was because the DC-10 had a lower operating cost then the 747, and more could be bought for the same money.[5] Initially, a batch of 12 aircraft was ordered, but this was later increased to 60.[5]

The KC-10 Extender first flew on 12 July 1980, but it was not until October the same year that the first aerial refuel sortie was performed.[7][8] The design for the KC-10 involved modifications from the DC-10-30CF design. Unnecessary airline features were replaced by an improved cargo-handling system and military avionics.[9] Meanwhile, the KC-10 retains 88% commonality with its commercial counterparts, giving it greater access to the worldwide commercial support system.[5] Other changes from the DC-10-30CF include the removal of most windows and lower cargo doors.[10] Early aircraft featured a distinctive light gray, white and blue paint scheme, but a gray-green camouflage scheme was used on later tankers. The paint scheme was switched to a medium gray color by the late 1990s.[11]

A jet aircraft refuels from a gray three-engine tanker via a long boom located under the tanker's aft fuselage.

The KC-10's mixed refueling system of hose-and-drogue and flying-boom allow it to refuel the aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and allied forces.[7]

The most notable changes were the addition of the McDonnell Douglas Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom (AARB) and additional fuel tanks located in the baggage compartments below the main deck. The extra tanks increase the KC-10's fuel capacity to 356,000 lb (161,478 kg), nearly doubling the KC-135's capacity.[7] The KC-10 has both a centerline refueling boom and a drogue-and-hose system on the starboard side of the rear fuselage. The KC-10 boom operator is located in the rear of the aircraft with wide window for monitoring refueling. The operator controls refueling operations through a digital fly-by wire system.[1][11][12] Unlike the KC-135, the KC-10's hose-and-drogue system allows refueling of Navy, Marine Corps, and most allied aircraft, all in one mission.[7] The final twenty KC-10s produced included wing-mounted pods for added refueling locations.[3] In addition to its tanking role, the KC-10 can carry a complement 75 personnel with 146,000 lb (66,225 kg) of cargo, or 170,000 lb (77,110 kg) in an all-cargo configuration.[7] The KC-10 has a side cargo door for loading and unloading cargo. Handling equipment is required to raise and lower loads to the cargo opening.

Further developments

A need for new transport aircraft for the Royal Netherlands Air Force was first identified in 1984. In 1991 four categories of transport requirements were established. Category A required a large cargo aircraft with a range of at least 4500 km and the capability to refuel F-16s. In 1992, two DC-10-30CFs were acquired from Martinair in a buy/leaseback contract. When one of the bought aircraft was lost in the Martinair Flight 495 crash, a third aircraft was bought from Martinair.[13]

The conversion was handled via the United States foreign military sales program, which in turn contracted McDonnell Douglas. Costs for the conversion were initially estimated at $89.5 million (FY 1994). The aircraft was to be equipped with both a boom and a probe and drogue system. However, because McDonnell Douglas did not have any experience with the requested Remote Aerial Refueling Operator (RARO) system, and because the third aircraft differed from the original two, the program could not be completed at budget. By omitting the probe and drogue system and a fixed partition wall between the cargo and passenger, the cost could be limited at $96 million. To make up for the cost increase McDonnell Douglas hired Dutch companies to do part of the work. The actual converting of the aircraft for instance was done by KLM. Conversion of the aircraft was done from October 1994 to September 1995 for the first aircraft and from February to December 1995 for the second. This was much longer than planned, mostly because McDonnell Douglas did not deliver the parts in time. This would have again increased the cost, but in the contract for the AH-64 Apaches which the Royal Netherlands Air Force also bought from McDonnell Douglas, the price was agreed to be kept at $96 million.[13]

After McDonnell Douglas did the KDC-10 conversion for the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1992, they proposed a tanker/transport version of the MD-11CF which had the in-house designation KMD-11. McDD offered either conversion of second hand aircraft (KMD-11) or new build aircraft (KC-10B), the proposed KMD-11 offered 35,000 lbs more cargo capacity and 8,400 lbs more transferable fuel than the KC-10A. It was offered to the RNAF and RSAF in the 1990s and the RAAF in the early 2000s.[14]

To modernize the platform, the USAF has awarded a contract to Boeing in 2010 to upgrade the fleet of 59 aircraft with new communication, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management (CNS/ATM) system. This is to allow the aircraft to fly in civil airspace as new ICAO and FAA standards take effect in 2015.[15] Rockwell Collins has also been awarded a contract in 2011 for avionics and systems integration for the cockpit modernization program.[16][17]

Operational history

United States

The first KC-10s was delivered to the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC) in March 1981 at Barksdale AFB; the 60th and final KC-10 arrived on 29 November 1988.[18] The KC-10s served with SAC until 1992, when they were re-assigned to the newly established Air Mobility Command. In the aerial refueling role, the KC-10s have been operated largely in the strategic refueling of large number of strategic transport aircraft. Conversely, the KC-135 fleet has operated largely in the refueling of fighters and bombers . There are 59 KC-10 Extenders in service with the USAF as of 2010.[1][15] The USAF's KC-10s are stationed primarily at Travis AFB, California, and McGuire AFB, New Jersey.

A USN F-14D and two F/A-18Cs prepare to refuel from a KC-10 in 2005 over the Persian Gulf.

When faced with refusals of basing and overflight rights from continental European countries during Operation El Dorado Canyon, the U.S. was forced to use the UK-based F-111s in the 1986 air-strikes against Libya. The KC-10s and KC-135s allowed 29 F-111s, along with other Air Force and Navy aircraft, to reach their targets.[19] The KC-10 again played a key role during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991; KC-10s facilitated the deployment of tactical, strategic, and transport aircraft to Saudi Arabia. In the early stages of Operation Desert Shield, aerial refueling was key to the rapid airlift of materiel and forces. In addition to refueling airlift aircraft, the KC-10, along with the smaller KC-135, moved thousands of tons of cargo and thousands of troops in support of the massive buildup. The KC-10 and the KC-135 conducted about 51,700 separate refueling operations and delivered 125 million gallons (475 million liters) of fuel without missing a single scheduled rendezvous.[1]

Since then, the KC-10 had participated in other smaller conflicts. In March 1999, NATO launched Operation Allied Force against the government of Yugoslavia. The mobility portion of the operation began in February and was heavily dependent on tankers. By early May 1999, some 150 KC-10s and KC-135s deployed to Europe where they refueled bombers, fighters and support aircraft engaged in the conflict. The KC-10 flew 409 missions throughout the entire Allied Force campaign and continued support operations in Kosovo.[1] Since 11 September 2001, KC-10s had also flown more than 350 missions guarding U.S. skies as a part of Operation Noble Eagle. During Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, KC-10s have flown more than 1,390 missions delivering critical air refueling support to numerous joint and Coalition receiver aircraft.[1] KC-10s are expected to serve until 2043.[20]

The Air Force is considering retiring its fleet of KC-10 tankers in response to sequestration budget cuts. The option is being considered as part of the service's FY 2015 budget. The Air Force requires 479 tanker aircraft, with most of the refueling fleet made up of 1950s-era KC-135s, while there are only several dozen KC-10s. One of the service's top priorities is the KC-46 tanker to replace one-third of its Cold War-era KC-135 fleet. Having three tanker models in service is costly and prevents acquisition of the new fleet. Because a "horizontal cut" across the refueling fleets would achieve small efficiencies across a large force, a "vertical chop" is being considered to divest all KC-10s to achieve greater savings over a shorter timeline.[21] Some believe retiring the KC-10 would not benefit the Air Force, given that it is equipped with both boom and hose-and-drogue refueling systems, the fleet's relatively young age, and its importance for movement across the Pacific.[22] Officials acknowledged that the initial focus on retiring the KC-10 in September 2013 was a "trial balloon" to call attention to Air Force operating cost issues. As of early 2013, the KC-10 had a per hour flying cost of $21,170 and a mission capable rate of 87 percent. The 59-aircraft fleet has no structural or fatigue issues and serves as a cargo hauling plane as well as a tanker.[23]


The second Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10 with landing gear down

The two Dutch KDC-10s are used for both refueling and transport.[24] They are stationed on Eindhoven Airport as part of the 334th Transport Squadron. Of the 5,500 hours flown in the first 3 years of use, the aircraft were used in their tanker role for 50% of the time. Besides being used by the air force and NATO allies, the KDC-10s are also used to support peacekeeping and humanitarian aid operations. Of the first three years, 32% of the flight hours were used for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid.[13]

In this function, the aircraft have been deployed to Kosovo to evacuate refugees, to the Caribbean and Central America to provide humanitarian aid after the hurricanes Luis, Georges and Mitch and to various countries in Africa and Asia to provide development aid. In 1998, the aircraft were also used to evacuate Dutch citizens from Indonesia during the Fall of Suharto. Dutch KDC-10s have been operating out of Manas AFB in support of allied forces during Operation Enduring Freedom.


In 1997, McDonnell Douglas offered both new build and secondhand KC-10B/KMD-11s to the Royal Saudi Air Force as a replacement to the KE-3 tanker. But the RSAF decided to keep the KE-3 until the delivery of Airbus A330 MRTT tankers.

In the early 2000's, the Royal Australian Air Force looked at secondhand KMD-11 conversions which would augment the A330 MRTT.

Civilian operators

Omega's KDC-10 tanker in March 2009

Commercial refueling companies Omega Aerial Refueling Services and Global Air Tanker Service operate two KDC-10 tankers (N974VV and N852V, respectively) for lease.[25][26] They were converted from DC-10-40s and provide both boom, and probe and drogue refueling capabilities.[27] In June and July 2011, Omega Air's KDC-10 supported 3 of Royal Australian Air Force's F/A-18 Hornets, en route to Red Flag – Alaska.[28]


Two large gray jet aircraft on roomy ramp surrounded by grass, both angled away from the runway. The one closer to camera is three-engined, while the one further in the background is fourengined.

A KC-10 (right foreground) and C-17 (left background) at Avalon Airport, Australia, for the 2005 Australian International Airshow

Large gray jet aircraft with three engines (two under the wings and one under the vertical stabilizer). The aircraft had just lifted off from runway, with landing gear fully extended.

A KC-10 from Travis AFB taking off from RAF Mildenhall

United States


On 17 September 1987, KC-10A serial number 82-0190 was undergoing maintenance on the ground at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and suffered an explosion and subsequent fire. The KC-10 was significantly damaged and written-off. One member of the ground crew, Sgt. Joseph M. Burgio died in the fire.[29]

Specifications (KC-10A)

External images
McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Cutaway
McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Cutaway from

Data from USAF Fact sheet,[1] Steffen[30]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 4 (Aircraft Commander, copilot, flight engineer, and boom operator)
  • Length: 181 ft 7 in (55.35 m)
  • Wingspan: 165 ft 4.5 in (50.406 m)
  • Height: 58 ft 1 in (17.70 m)
  • Wing area: 3,958 sq ft (367.7 m2)
  • Airfoil: root: DSMA-496/-521/-522 ; tip: DSMA-519/-520[31]
  • Empty weight: 241,027 lb (109,328 kg)
  • Gross weight: 590,000 lb (267,619 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 593,000 lb (268,980 kg)
  • Fuel capacity: 365,000 lb (165,561 kg)
  • Powerplant: 3 × General Electric F103 (GE CF6-50C2) turbofan engines, 52,500 lbf (234 kN) thrust each


  • Maximum speed: 538 mph (866 km/h; 468 kn)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 0.89
  • Range: 4,373 mi; 7,038 km (3,800 nmi) with cargo; 10,000 nmi (18,520 km; 11,508 mi) without cargo
  • Service ceiling: 42,000 ft (12,802 m)
  • Rate of climb: 6,870 ft/min (34.9 m/s)

See also


  1. The Handley Page Jetstream had been initially ordered as the C-10A, but was soon cancelled. This allowed the tanker version of the DC-10 to be designated KC-10A.
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 "Factsheets: KC-10 Extender". US Air Force. Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  2. WEISGERBER, MARCUS; MEHTA, AARON (15 September 2013). "USAF Weighs Scrapping KC-10, A-10 Fleets". Gannett Government Media Corporation. Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Waddington 2000, pp. 116–120.
  4. Endres 1998, p. 65.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Steffan 1998, p. 103.
  6. Frawley 2002, p. 119.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Steffan 1998, p. 104.
  8. "KC-10A Extender: Background". Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  9. Eden 2004, p 286.
  10. "KC-10A Extender: Characteristics". Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Steffen 1998, pp. 103–107.
  12. Eden 2004, p 287.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 "Kamerbrieven: Evaluatie KDC-10" (in Dutch). Ministerie van Defensie, 1 July 1999. Retrieved 22 February 2008. [dead link]
  15. 15.0 15.1 Trimble, Stephen (24 June 2010). "Boeing outlines C-130H and KC-10 cockpit upgrades". Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  18. Steffen 1998, pp. 104, 107.
  19. "Operation El Dorado Canyon". Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  20. Veronico and Dunn 2004, p. 58.
  21. Air Force May Scrap KC-10 Tanker Fleet -, 17 September 2013
  22. "USAF Weighs Scrapping KC-10, A-10 Fleets." -, 15 September 2013
  23. Air Force May Scrap Entire A-10 Fleet -, 17 October 2013
  24. Steffen 1997, pp. 106–107.
  25. "Frequently Asked Questions". Omega Air Refueling. Retrieved 27 August 2011. 
  26. "KDC-10 Air Refueling Tanker Aircraft." Global Airtanker Service. Retrieved: 19 September 2010.
  27. "KDC-10: Primary Options." Global Air Tanker Services. Retrieved: 25 February 2008.
  28. "RAAF Hornets Participate in Red Flag Alaska" Air Forces Monthly (Key Publishing), Issue 282, September 2011, pp. 37. ISSN 09557091. Retrieved: 30 September 2011.
  29. "McDonnell Douglas KC-10A 82-0190." Aviation Safety Network Database. Retrieved: 19 September 2010.
  30. Steffen 1998, p. 107.
  31. Lednicer, David. "The Incomplete Guide to Airfoil Usage". Retrieved 16 April 2019. 

External links

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