New “Sock” To Keep KC-135 Tanker Aircraft Cool

An F-15 Eagle fighter jet refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker. Visit The PatriArt Gallery to purchase this image as a poster, framed art print, 12-month calendar, or greeting card set.

Aircrews operating KC-135 Stratotankers in hot climates may soon have a safer way to keep their flight decks cool thanks to the Air Mobility Battlelab’s KC-135 Hot Weather Cooling Sock initiative.

“This initiative addresses a current problem where aircraft maintainers use a standard flexible duct connected to an air conditioning cart to cool the KC-135 flight deck while the aircraft is on the ground in hot climates,” said Master Sgt. Eric Allain, the Air Mobility Battlelab, or AMB, project manager on the initiative. “The duct runs through the same opening aircrew and maintenance personnel use to enter and exit the aircraft, which impairs quick egress in emergency situations. In addition, the duct prevents closure of a hatch in the flight deck floor, which creates a fall hazard for personnel working in the cockpit.”

Enter the 161st Air Refueling Wing at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Ariz., who came up with a proposed solution – a lightweight, flexible, canvas tube, or “sock,” small enough to run behind the aircraft’s crew entry ladder. This keeps it out of the way of personnel entering and exiting the aircraft during ground cooling operations, Sergeant Allain said. “This installation will also allow the crew entry gate to fully close, eliminating potential tripping hazards and other safety concerns,” he said.

The AMB learned of the 161st’s idea, and decided to conduct a formal demonstration to get the concept in front of Air Mobility Command leadership and other KC-135 units.

“The 161st ARW parachute shop took a commercially-made canvas acrylic fabric and sewed it into a cylindrical hose approximately 15- to 16-feet long with an air sealing web nylon cinch belt,” Sergeant Allain said. “There are buckle tie-downs on one end of the sock connecting it to a standard flexible duct and four strap webbings with a spring buckle on the other end to tie it down to the ladder. When the sock is completely rolled up, it’s approximately the size of a small sleeping bag.”

The shop fabricated the cooling sock at a cost of $78 in parts and four and a half hours of labor, Sergeant Allain said.

“We then went to work on assessing how well it would cool a flight deck down in the Arizona sun,” Sergeant Allain said.

During the demonstration held in June, they completed five objectives. First, they determined if the cooling sock could cool the flight deck during ground operations to a level comparable to the standard duct. Next, they verified the cooling sock allowed obstruction-free entry and egress and complete closure of the flight deck crew entry hatch during ground cooling operations. And, lastly, they checked to see if the cooling sock material met relevant specifications and assessed whether the sock would impart excessive forces on the crew access ladder mounting hardware.

“The cooling sock met all of our objectives, and I commend the 161st parachute shop for building a great end product,” Sergeant Allain said. “The idea for a sock like this has implications for heating operations in a cold weather climate as well, but we’ll have to look into using a different material for heating. Overall, it was a very successful demonstration.”

The air temperature on the ramp at Phoenix was 110 degrees Fahrenheit the day of the demonstration, and the temperature in the cockpit was over 126 degrees before air conditioning was applied. The cooling sock was able to bring the average cockpit temperature down to 84 degrees during the demonstration.

In his recommendation to Air Mobility Command, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Lathrop, AMB commander, urged the command to explore finding a suitable material for both heating and cooling, and then field the sock for the Air Force’s KC-135 fleet.

“Cooling the cockpit is not just a crew comfort item; it’s vital for the proper operation and longevity of sensitive electronics in the flight deck,” Colonel Lathrop said. “The 161st came up with a great design that gets the job done while eliminating multiple safety hazards. It has implications across the KC 135 tanker fleet.”

The Air Mobility Battlelab was established in 2001 to identify and demonstrate the utility of innovative concepts with potential to enhance Mobility Air Force capabilities. The AMB deactivates on Sept. 24 as part of an Air Force cost-savings initiative.

Scott T. Sturkol


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