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340th EARS keeps aircraft in fight 24/7

by Capt. Wes Ticer
379th Air Expeditionary Wing

3/26/2007 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNEWS) -- Despite the age of the KC-135 Stratotanker, one of the Air Force's top recapitalization priorities,  the role of the Airmen in the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron to refuel coalition aircraft has proven critical to the U.S. Central Command mission.

As enablers, the refuelers make every other air mission possible by providing the capability to provide U.S. Central Command combat airpower anywhere, anytime, according to Lt. Col. Tom Riney, 340th EARS commander.

"For the past 50 years the KC-135s have made immediate, on call, close air support possible, and enabled complete domination of the sky," Colonel Riney said. "In the current conflict, the troops on the ground deserve and expect air cover when and where they need it, and our strike pilots deserve and expect to enter the fray with the edge that a full tank of gas provides."

The squadron accomplishes its mission with a very diverse mix of people. Currently there are crews from eight bases in the U.S. including two Air National Guard bases, and from two overseas bases. Over the past few years, almost every active-duty tanker unit and most Guard and Reserve units have provided aircrews to fly and fight with the 340th EARS.

Driving the need for mixing crews from multiple locations and commands is the size of the operation here and the number of hours the crews have to fly.

"We are a very young active-duty crew force, and our Guard and Reserve crews round out our total force team by providing the experience and expertise that only years of flying can bring," Colonel Riney said. "I am very proud of how these young professional aviators step up and make the mission happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Looking at the successes of the KC-135, some might not realize the work that is being done with an airframe that entered service 50 years ago. Colonel Riney said it's not easy keeping the planes in top shape, but the people who maintain them make it look that way.

"While we love our KC-135s and treat them as best we can, it is our maintenance experts who really keep these planes flying," he said. "When you consider the age of our fleet and the number of hours we are flying, and the environmental changes these planes endure by coming from northern tier bases to the desert, the accomplishments of our maintenance team is truly mind boggling."

Colonel Riney said he left his base when the temperature was minus 17 degrees. Two days later, his maintenance crews had that same plane up and flying an operational mission in the desert.

"It is through sheer will and determination that our maintainers keep these jets in the air," Colonel Riney said. "The amazing mission-capable rates and record-high mission-effectiveness rates that we in the cockpit enjoy is a truly a testament to the professional maintainers."

Another aspect of the tanker mission here is the number of different aircraft on the receiving end of the tanker's fuel. Crews might spend one day refueling Navy F/A-18 Hornetss or Royal Air Force GR-4 Tornados, and the next day offload fuel to RC-135s, E-8 Joint STARS, or Air Force fighters on their way to protect troops on the ground.

"From the cockpit, the changing airframes keep us on our toes, but from the back of the aircraft, our boom operators have to be on their 'A' game every mission," Colonel Riney said. "Switching from refueling a fighter to a (large transport or bomber), then back to a fighter, presents serious challenges and our boom operators are very effective at making the transitions."

As a total-force team in the air and on the ground, the KC-135 community is proud of its contribution to the long war, Colonel Riney said. From enabling persistent air cover and intelligence, surveillance and reconaisance for the troops on the ground and air mobility that keeps convoys off the road, the tanker gas is a key link in the chain of events leading to mission success. 

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