ANCHORAGE, Alaska –
Following a nearly three-week stay in Alaska, the Spirit of Portsmouth, one of 12 KC-46A jets assigned to the 157th Air Refueling Wing, returned home with a patriotic new look, just in time for the Fourth of July.
The Pegasus touched down at Pease, July 1, with its 52-foot-tall tail draped in red, white, and blue stars and stripes, overlaid by a 16-foot-tall Minute Man. The text New Hampshire stretches down the left side of the plane, while the state motto--Live Free or Die--adorns the right; both are underscored by 60-foot-long fishhooks. The traditional black stars-and-bars near the rear of the jet are now rendered in full color.
The new paint scheme honors the U.S. Air Force’s 75th birthday, as well as the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
According to Senior Master Sgt. Brian Dulin, the 157th Maintenance Squadron fabrication section supervisor, the idea for the custom paint originated in 2021, when the maintenance leadership team was trying to come up with something that was uniquely Air National Guard to inspire and engage their Airmen. Dulin said he recalled the sense of pride he got as a young airman when the guard jets at the time had nose art, and he wanted to recreate that for the new generation of airmen.
Dulin said they had not settled on an idea until, one day, he was driving by the end of the runway at Pease and noticed an Alaska Air National Guard jet with a wolf painted on the tail.
“That’s what we’ve got to do,” he remembered thinking at the time.
The leadership got the approval process started and turned to Airman 1st Class Rebekka Bloser, a structural maintenance airman, to come up with the concept for the painting. While she describes herself as artistic, this would be her first large-scale work. That didn’t stop her from rising to the challenge.
Bloser started the design process by drawing the flag on a piece of fabric, which she draped over a small mockup of the tail of a KC-46. This helped give her a sense of the correct scale and positioning. To further develop the concept, she digitized the mockup, then shared it with leadership for approval.
“I originally came into this career field for this type of thing,” said Bloser.
Meanwhile, another member of the maintenance team, Master Sgt. Andrew Morrison, went on the hunt for aircraft painters who had the expertise to bring artwork to life. While searching online, he stumbled upon Shayne Meder, a retired Air Force master sergeant with nearly four decades of experience restoring aircraft and painting nose art. When he reached out to her, Meder signed on to the project, pro bono.
Meder regularly gives her time and abilities to military units as a way to build morale and esprit de corps. And, while she sometimes does up to 12 aircraft a year, this would be her first tanker project. She would help pull the logistical threads together and worked with Bloser to take the concept art to a point where it was ready to go on the jet.
Once all the logistics and approvals were in place, the paint project officially got underway and the Spirit of Portsmouth was flown across the continent, from New Hampshire to a state-of-the-art paint booth, owned and operated by the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Anchorage, Alaska.
According to Steve Johns, the aircraft structural maintenance foreman with the 3rd Wing – the 176th Wing’s Total Force Initiative active affiliate – the 36,000 square-foot facility is the third largest of its kind in the Department of Defense and was constructed in 2009. The paint booth, actually two stacked on top of each other, was built with the C-17 in mind, but can house a plethora of other aircraft of a similar size. While not necessary for this project, the massive aircraft hangar can maintain a temperature of 75 degrees, even when the temperature drops to negative 20 degrees during the Alaskan winter. It also includes a curing mode that turns up the heat even higher in order to bake the paint onto planes.
Meder, Bloser, and fellow Pease maintainers Tech. Sgt. Jay Cunha, Staff Sgt. Cory Lewis and Staff Sgt. Kevin Canney, accompanied the jet to Alaska. Over the next two weeks, it would take the team of five a total of 630 hours, 30 rolls of tape, 82 feet of stencil vinyl, and five gallons of paint to make the vision a reality.
The hardest part, according to Meder, was preparing the skin of the aircraft for the new paint. Perched in bucket lifts and on an articulated elevator platform suspended from the ceiling of the hangar, the team scuffed every inch of the surface with palm sanders and sand paper to ensure the new paint would stick. It took two days of sanding and cleaning before they could begin laying out the art.
The next challenge they faced was finding a way to project the artwork so it could be traced onto the prepped surface. The projector Meder normally uses had to be left at home due to its weight, so the team tried several different options, including a transparency projector Cunha found at a nearby yard sale. Unfortunately that was not powerful enough, so they finally settled on a digital projector, which, when elevated on a lift and with the hangar lights dimmed, proved adequate for the task.
With the design chalked onto the surface, the vison became reality over the next two weeks as the team masked then painted each layer onto the skin of the plane with high-efficiency sprayers. In addition to tape and paper, they also utilized large vinyl stencils to create some of the more intricate portions of the design, including the Minute Man and the lettering down the sides.
The last spray of paint was applied June 29. As they plucked paper, tape and vinyl from the skin of the plane, they slowly unveiled a tribute to the wing’s National Guard heritage, as well as its long history with the state of New Hampshire. Once unmasked, the team applied the final touch to the tail – their signatures in red paint.
After a final night spent curing in the paint booth, the Spirit of Portsmouth was towed into the near 24-hour Alaskan summer sunshine.
Bloser said it was a great feeling to see the finished artwork up on the plane. Meder echoed her sentiment.
“I have a lot of friends who are artists and they have galleries,” said Meder. “I don’t have a gallery, my gallery is in the air. It’s great to see your art flying around.”
Dulin, who flew to Anchorage to help bring the Spirit of Portsmouth home to New Hampshire, said his Airmen sent pictures of the progress throughout the project, but he didn’t get a good sense of the size of the scale of the artwork. Seeing it in person was incredible.
Col. Nelson Perron, the 157th Air Refueling Wing commander, piloted the wing’s new artwork on its homeward journey. He said he’s very proud of the work that went into it and hopes it will bring a sense of pride to members of the unit and be an inspiration to the public.
“There’s a lot of emotion,” he said. “To see the Minute Man, the stars and bars, and the flag, I couldn’t stop smiling and I’m excited to bring tail 034 back to New Hampshire.”