Airframe: KC-10 Extender

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Janiqua Robinson
  • Airman Magazine


The KC-10 Extender is an advanced tanker and cargo aircraft combining aerial refueling capabilities with personnel and supply transport capabilities. As the Air Force moves towards modernizing its in-air refueling capabilities with the KC-46, the KC-10 will continue to provide a combination of transport and in-air refueling to support mission readiness.

The KC-10 is the result of the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft Program, which was launched in 1975 to address a shortfall in the Air Force’s aerial mobility. At the time, the Air Force was seeking an aircraft that would have adequate refueling and cargo transport capabilities that could bridge the gap between larger cargo aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy and dedicated refuelers like the KC-135 Stratotanker.



The KC-10 is a modified Boeing Company DC-10 and retains 88% of systems used on the original. The modifications include a seated aerial refueling operator station, an aerial refueling boom, military avionics, an aerial refueling hose and drogue, an aerial refueling receptacle and satellite communications. These upgrades are vital to the KC-10’s mission.

The KC-10 can transport up to 75 people with nearly 170,000 pounds of cargo for approximately 4,400 miles before needing to refuel. This cargo hauling capability is integral when the KC-10 is used on humanitarian missions as it’s capable of carrying ambulatory patients while utilizing patient support pallets.

With three main wing fuel tanks, three large fuel tanks under the cargo floor, one tank under the forward lower cargo compartment, another in the center wing area and an additional tank under the rear compartment, the KC-10 can carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel which is nearly twice the capacity of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

Fuel from its many tanks is funneled into other aircraft mid-flight, using either the hose and drogue centerline refueling system or an advanced aerial refueling boom. This versatility gives the KC-10 the capability to refuel a wide variety of allied and U.S. military aircraft, day or night, anywhere in the world.

Refueling operations using either of the systems is controlled by the KC-10’s boom operator who sits in the back of the aircraft using a digital fly-by-wire system.


Operational History

The KC-10 began its operational service when it was delivered to its first duty station in 1981. Today, a modified version known as the KC-10A has flying and support squadrons at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Travis Air Force Base, California.

The KC-10 has completed numerous refueling and cargo missions in support of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the ramp up for the Persian Gulf conflict. Throughout this time, the KC-135 and KC-10 worked in tandem to complete 51,700 refueling missions and deliver 125,000,000 gallons of fuel without a single miss.

The KC-10 also played an instrumental role in Operation Allied Force. Operation Allied Force was a NATO air campaign against the Yugoslavian government that started in March of 1999. By the end, the KC-10 had flown 409 missions throughout the Allied Force campaign.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, KC-10s have flown more than 350 missions in support of Operation Noble Eagle and more than 1,390 missions in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.


Did You Know?

  • The KC-10’s retention of 88% of the Boeing Company DC-10’s systems save the Air Force money on maintenance costs.
  • There are three CF-6-50C2 turbofan engines that allow the KC-10 to fly at a top speed of nearly 538 knots (Mach 0.89) and a maximum mission range of 4,400 miles.
  • For basic refueling missions, each KC-10 requires four crewmembers: an aircraft commander, copilot, flight engineer and a boom operator.
  • The KC-10 is also flown by the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
  • The KC-46 Pegasus is beginning to replace the KC-10.

Aircraft Stats

PRIMARY FUNCTION: Aerial tanker and transport
CONTRACTOR: The Boeing Company
POWER PLANT: Three General Electric CF6-50C2 turbofans
THRUST: 52,500 pounds, each engine
LENGTH: 181 feet, 7 inches (54.4 meters)
HEIGHT: 58 feet, 1 inch (17.4 meters)
WINGSPAN: 165 feet, 4.5 inches (50 meters)
SPEED: 619 mph (Mach 0.825)
CEILING: 42,000 feet (12,727 meters)
MAXIMUM TAKEOFF WEIGHT: 590,000 pounds (265,500 kilograms)
RANGE: 4,400 miles (3,800 nautical miles) with cargo; 11,500 miles (10,000 nautical miles) without cargo
MAXIMUM CARGO PAYLOAD: 170,000 pounds (76,560 kilograms)
MAXIMUM FUEL LOAD: 356,000 pounds (160,200 kilograms)
CREW: Four (pilot, copilot, flight engineer and boom operator) Certain missions may require additional crew members. In aeromedical evacuation missions, a basic crew of five (two flight nurses and three medical technicians) is added. Medical crew may be altered as required.
UNIT COST: $88.4 million (fiscal 1998 constant dollars)
INVENTORY: Active force, 59; Air National Guard, 0; Air Force Reserve, 0