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Base theater to sound, look better

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

The mission of the 91st Air Refueling Squadron is well known at MacDill. From Operation Desert Storm to Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the job of air refueling has been a key element of U.S. military success.

A mobile and responsive air refueling capability has made it possible to carry out the intensive air operations that have come to define the military operations of the last decade, and the 91st has been helping make it happen. Three members of the 91st answered questions this week about the mission, its importance and some of their experiences over hostile territory. Each wanted to be upfront about one thing: it isn't just about an airplane taking off, delivering fuel and coming home, they agreed.

"It's about everything that goes into it," said Capt. Brandt House, an Aircraft Commander with the 91st, who added that it is a symphony of people -- from maintenance crews, services, flight safety and every part of the team, including the security forces who guard the air bases here and abroad who make each mission possible.

"The (tanker) pilots tend to get all the glory but it takes a lot more than aircraft and pilots to make this happen," said Captain House.

Pilot 1st Lt. Javin Peterson agreed, noting that while he may fly the missions, "its only possible because of everything that goes on behind the scenes."

"Without everyone who makes it happen, we can't do anything," said Tech Sgt. Dickey Hunt, a boom operator.

As operations officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Connelly believes it is the teamwork of the 91st that has made it successful. Everyone is focused on making each operation successful, he said, and "you couldn't ask for a better group of people." Colonel Connelly, who was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a commander, said a big part of the job is mission planning and what is known as operational risk management. Each operation is profiled and every element considered to rank the risk. Aside from obvious factors like the weather, even the personal problems of crew members -- be it a death in the family or the amount of sleep each has received recently -- all go into the calculation. The result is a risk rating. Colonel Connelly said he then tries to reduce the risk of the operation by making changes. It is then sent up the line, where higher ranking officers analyze the plan for approval, sometimes with changes of their own. This attention to detail is one reason for the high level of operation success, said Colonel Connelly.

"I have a wider view than the crews; the commander has a wider view than me and the group commanders a wider view yet," he said. "That way everything can be seen clearly and risks are minimized."

But in air refueling, the rubber meets the road when the rubber leaves the road. Once in the air, it's up to the KC-135 crew to complete the mission--meeting with the receiver (the aircraft taking on fuel) making the critical connection with the boom, offloading the fuel and recovering. While many have repeated the operation countless times, there isn't anyone on the crew of a KC-135 who doesn't get at least a few butterflies during the critical moments of docking the boom.

"We all know how critical it is and what can happen," said Captain House, adding that the wildcard always is the pilot in the receiving aircraft. "If the receiver (pilot) is new, that's a variable we can't always count on."

Sergeant Hunt said there is a moment when the receiver closes to within four feet of the boom that he loses sight of it. That's when the boom operator takes over and makes the connection happen but it is not unusual to begin hearing the receiving pilot's breathing loud and clear over the radio, said Captain House.

The primary danger is turbulence and the chance of the receiving plane "popping up" too quickly or too far as it comes in low and has to come up to meet the boom. Fortunately accidents during air refueling have been rare but as was shown in 1967 when a KC-135 and a refueling B-52 collided and were lost, the danger is ever present.

All three men agreed refueling the C-17 is their least favorite operation, as the plane is both large and fast and has the most potential for problems. Sergeant Hunt, who has flown in operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, said he rates refueling A-10s, particularly in hostile areas, as one of the more hair-raising operations. The tankers must fly a lot lower and slower to meet up with the slow-moving A-10s. When in areas where enemy forces are within shooting range, the risks are much greater than high-altitude flights where speeds are much greater, said Sergeant Hunt. "I've seen tracer fire coming up and that's a little unnerving," he said.

But even high altitude is no guarantee of safety, said Captain House, who said on his first day over Afghanistan he became acutely aware that the mountainous landscape would make the job more dangerous. Even shorter range, shoulder-fired rockets can be effective in such cases as they can be launched from the tops of mountains, which can put the enemy a mile or more closer to a KC-135 than if at sea level.

"That puts you in range where otherwise you wouldn't have to worry," said Captain House. Add to that high levels of air traffic creating the chance of collision and you have to stay on your toes, said Captain House.

"Your head is definitely on a serious swivel and you are always looking around when you're up there."

All recognize the age of the KC-135 and the increasing amount of maintenance time and money it takes to keep planes 40 to 50 years old in the air. While the details of the deal remain to be finalized, all look ahead to the possibility of the fleet being replaced by new and larger 767 tankers. For those who cut their teeth on the KC-135 the change would be bittersweet -- trading an old friend for fancy new technology.

Younger than some of his fellow pilots, Lieutenant Peterson said he looks forward to the 767.

"I think they're pretty cool and I kind of look forward to it," he said.

Sergeant Hunt said it will be a learning experience for KC-135 crews, who will be faced with a totally new way of doing their job. He's grown fond of his plane and notes his father was a boom operator on a KC-135 for 24 years. But a 767 is not his daddy's tanker. As a boom operator on a 767, he would no longer be in the back of the plane, eyeing the receiver and boom as the alignment is made. Instead, like playing a video game, he would be looking through an electronic video viewer monitoring cameras at the rear. Electronic controls not unlike a video game pad would maneuver the boom remotely. Captain House recognizes the need for new equipment and says it is vital to address future needs to keep the refueling capability of the Air Force viable. Like anything new, there will be adjustments "for the old guys like me who have been around a while."

He said he hopes boom operators won't lose their "seat-of-the-pants" feel for the job and their unique way of expressing a sense of urgency when a receiving plane makes a sudden wrong move.

"Now they (boom operators) are right there watching and we can tell a lot about when something is wrong by the squeal the boom operator lets out," said Captain House. "I just hope they don't lose that squeal when they're up front and operating remotely."

Whatever the changes, members of the 91st, from those handling logistics on the ground to the crews in the air are ready for whatever may come and always are prepared to step up quickly when the call comes.

Without the KC-135 cargo can't be delivered and fighters can't sustain their mission.

"We really are at the tip of the spear when it comes to air operations," said Captain House. With tankers, global reach and global power is possible.

 

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