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Tankers keep aircraft in the fight at Red Flag-Alaska

by Staff Sgt. Shawn J. Jones
Red Flag-Alaska Public Affairs

7/19/2007 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN)  -- Tankers are patrolling the Last Frontier ready to provide in-flight refueling to aircraft in need to keep fighter aircraft participating in Red Flag-Alaska focused on fighting.

Red Flag-Alaska is a multinational exercise from July 12 through 27 that provides realistic combat training in a safe and controlled setting over the Pacific Alaskan Range Complex and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. 

Throughout the course of the exercise, American and Turkish KC-135 Stratotanker crews provide in-air refueling to aircraft from America, Japan, Spain and Turkey. Without topping off at these gas stations in the clouds, the contingent of multinational fighter aircraft would only average 60 to 90 minutes of flight time.

"Our refuelers, both American and coalition, allow us to maximize the multi-role capabilities of the F-15E Strike Eagle," said Col. James Jinnette, the 335th Fighter Squadron commander from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., "They allow us to extend our flying time, hit our targets and remain on station to protect all assets involved in a strike."

Red Flag-Alaska's training scenarios require fighter aircraft to perform extended missions for durations that exceeds the standard fuel capacity.

"Air refueling gives the Strike Eagle the capability to swing from an air-to-ground to an air-to-air target," said Lt. Col. Rich Tobasco of the 335th FS.

While the KC-135s primarily provide a support function at Red Flag-Alaska, their role as a logistical powerhouse is indisputable. There are two primary methods of getting fighter aircraft into and out of conflict areas in the Southwest Asia -- air bridges and coronets.

An air bridge occurs when air-refueling tankers meet other aircraft along their route. Since fighters cannot carry enough fuel to make it to Southwest Asia without refueling, tankers provide in-air refueling to prolong the fighters' non-stop range. The individual tanker's mission in an air bridge is to provide enough fuel to the traveling aircraft to get them to either the next tanker or their final destination.

After refueling the traveling aircraft, the tanker returns to its home station. The traveling aircraft will make numerous in-air pit stops before reaching their destination, said Maj. John Pannell, a KC-135 pilot from the 434th Air Refueling Wing at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind.

The coronet, unlike the air bridge, makes use of an air-refueling tanker that travels with aircraft with less fuel capacity, refueling them as necessary along the route. On their way to Alaska, six Japanese F-15Js were refueled seven times by an American KC-10 Extender on their seven-hour journey from Hyukari Air Base near Tokyo.

It's about an eight-hour trip from Seymour Johnson AFB to Eielson AFB with air refueling. Without it, it can take days, Colonel Tobasco said.

The practice of airborne refueling, where an aircraft positions its nose just under a refueling boom that extends from the back of a KC-135, requires good communication skills and patience, said Tech. Sgt. Paul Sherrod, an in-flight refueling technician, or boom operator, with the 434th ARW.

KC-135 boom operators lie belly-down with their head toward the rear of the aircraft. As fighter aircraft position themselves, the boom operator uses a control stick to maneuver the refueling boom into the fuel receptacle of the aircraft.

"I've got to be able to communicate under stressful conditions," Sergeant Sherrord said. "Pilots don't have rearview mirrors."

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