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Tankers take care of deployed aircrews 365 days a year

by Master Sgt. Rich Romero
40th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM -- Airman 1st Class Robert Willis celebrated his 21st birthday in a rather unusual manner July 22 -- offloading 85,200 pounds of jet fuel at 27,500 feet to a B-52 Stratofortress bound for Afghanistan.

It was merely another day at the "office" for the boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker air refueling aircraft.

"It's our job to get the gas to them where and when they need it," said the Airman deployed to this forward-deployed location from Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.

He and a mixture of other Airmen from three stateside bases make up the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron. Currently, aircrews, staff officers and maintainers from MacDill AFB, Fla., Robins AFB, Ga., and Grand Forks AFB form the squadron.

Because of the high operations tempo the tanker community experiences, they don't fit into the same rotation schedule as Airmen on a typical air and space expeditionary force deployment. Demand is high on the dual-role aircraft which can carry up to 200,000 pounds of transfer fuel as well as 83,000 pounds of cargo and 37 passengers. The KC-135 is capable of air refueling U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft as well as aircraft of allied nations.

"While we support the AEF construct just like other major weapon systems, there simply aren't enough tankers available for them to fit neatly into the AEF cycle," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sheppard, the squadron's commander, also from Grand Forks.

"Many (Airmen) from the KC-135 community would welcome the opportunity to deploy for 120 days and then spend several months at home, but that's just not possible in today's environment," Colonel Sheppard said.

"We're in demand 365 days a year both at home and in a myriad of deployed locations. The only way to handle that demand is to have all the wings continuously share in the deployment burden," the colonel said.

Crew No. 5, who drew the 7 a.m. sortie July 22, can certainly attest to that. Capts. Ryan Budinko, the aircraft commander, and David Eisenbrey, a pilot, have both been deployed for 180 days in the past year. Airman Willis has deployed for nearly 250 days. Typically, tanker aircrew deployments are for 60 days at a time.

"The tanker community deploys a lot," Colonel Sheppard said. "While some tanker troops might spend a shorter time at a given location relative to someone in a straight AEF tasking, that person may deploy repeatedly throughout the year, so overall days remain quite high."

Captain Budinko and Airman Willis are examples of this. They have deployed together in three consecutive deployments. Both agree there are benefits as a result.

"You certainly build a rapport and trust with that person," said Airman Willis, who has nearly 800 flying hours in his 18 months in the Air Force. "It's hard to trust people who you don't know well, particularly when your life is in each other's hands."

Captain Budinko said it is a great combination with the biggest benefit of knowing instantly how the other person is feeling that day.

"From the first interaction with him, I can tell how he's doing," said the captain from Glendora, Calif. "I also know a lot about him personally, including his family."

However, the Grand Forks crew does not typically fly together at home station.

"At home station, we don't have dedicated crews," Airman Willis said. "We fly with different people much of the time. When deployed, though, we typically fly with the same crew each time."

While the aircraft has a dual-role capability, the nearly 10 aircrews here solely provide air refueling support, primarily for bombers heading into and out of Afghanistan. It is arguably as important a mission as the aircraft they refuel.

"(Operation Enduring Freedom) basically runs on tankers," said Captain Eisenbrey, who has more than 2,400 flying hours.

For Airman Willis, it is a mission that is immensely satisfying.

"They (aircraft) don't stay in the air without you," said the Houston native. "You feel a lot more needed (when deployed) because you're directly supporting the mission on hand. Back home, it's mostly training."

There is not necessarily a lot of time spent back home, though. While many of the tanker support troops are here for 120 days, Air Mobility Command policy also gives units the option of swapping out their people mid-tour, which gives them added flexibility, Colonel Sheppard said.

"Unlike other (Air Mobility Command) assets, we don't just land, spend 17 hours on the ground and take off," Captain Eisenbrey said. "The mission usually requires us to stick around for a little while if we go somewhere."

As far as crew No. 5 is concerned, they would not have it any other way. (Courtesy of Air Force Print News)

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