Real World Refueling
By Sagar Pathak
Laying on my belly in the back of the KC-135 from March ARB at 20,000 feet, I stared out into an ominous grey cloud. I couldn’t see the ground nor had any sense of depth or movement even though we were going 315 knots. It was as though we were in a grey void hanging in the sky. And to compound my fear, there was a thin coating of hydraulic fluid all over the boom’s window. It was like looking through a window coated in Vaseline. Knowing that there was going to be an F-16 just 10 feet away from us, both of us bouncing around due to turbulence from the clouds, and the boom operator not clearly being able to see the plane was less then comforting.
But out there somewhere in the void was eight F-16s from Luke AFB that needed fuel to complete their training. And one way or another, SRA Shawn Racchini, boom operator for the 912th Air Refueling Squadron, was going to get them that fuel. With nearly five years under his belt as a boom operator, SRA Racchini has been deployed oversees five times and knows how to get the job done.
Eight years ago, I went on my first aerial refueling flight with a KC-135 with the 163rd ARW from March AFB. During that flight, we refueled two F-16s from the 144th FW over the deep blue Pacific ocean. Blue skies, blue ocean, and two sleek airplanes. Years and a dozen refueling missions later, I was back on a tanker based at March. But this time it was definitely less than ideal conditions.
The week prior to our flight our KC-135R had just returned from Bagram, Afghanistan and along the way, the Forward Air Refueling Pump on the Aft Body developed a leak. The dedicated maintainers from the 452nd Maintenance Group fixed the leak and hosed out the excess hydraulic fluid as best they could in the oldest KC-135 based at March ARB.
But, unfortunately, a small amount of fluid pooled in a corner of the rear of the aircraft and they could not get it all out. Once airborne, with the rear boom window open, this fluid would swirl around and slowly coat the entire boom operator’s window. It would take several flights to clear itself out over the next few flights. Unfortunately, one of those flights was ours.
After a thorough briefing with our pilots, CPT Rick Adams and CPT Jamie Studer, also from the 912th Air Refueling Squadron, we boarded the crew van and headed out to the KC-135. Maintenance had everything operational for the mission and we boarded the jet for the California/Arizona border.
With an uneventful take off, we cleared the Southern California Airspace and headed east to our aerial refueling track. On the horizon loomed the clouds that we saw in the weather report that would obscure the aerial refueling track. But this was not enough to deter the 912th from completing their mission.
Be it here in the United States, or overseas offloading gas so that aircraft could stay in the fight and protect the troops on the ground, the tankers of the 912th stood up to the challenge. The thing that impressed me was that on every other media flight that I had participated in, the weather was immaculate, be it by chance or planning. But this was the first time I had a chance to experience the less than ideal conditions that these crews faces constantly. It really hit home that the IFR conditions that they trained in combined with the “Yo-Yo Ops” (where one jet stays in the fight and the second comes up for fuel, and then they swap, ensuring continuous coverage for the troops on the ground) were analogous to the conditions that they flew in during wartime. Day or night, clear skies or cloudy, clear glass or blurred, if that aircrew could fly and if that boomer could safely operate his refueling boom, then those planes were going to get gas that they needed.
Once we got to the aerial refueling track, we orbited the area and waited for the 308th FS “Emerald Knights” to show up. CPT Studer and CPT Adams shared the responsibilities of flying the jet, communicating with the boom, communicating with air traffic control and talking to the fighters. A task not easily accomplished but handled with adept skill.
It was hard to see anything out the window as is, and the flying in and out of the clouds didn’t help either. But eventually the first pair of fighters, call sign APEX, showed up. What I didn’t know was that the 308th was one of the Air Forces top units that produced F-16 instructor pilots. So as the pilots took a break from their aerial dog fighting, they swooped up to the tanker and topped off with a couple of thousand pounds of fuel and got back to their valuable training.
Over the next hour and half, we had a total eight Vipers from the 56th FW/308th FS come up for fuel. They had call signs such as APEX, KNIGHT, and FLAG and each faced a daunting task of flying in formation with a heavy refueling tanker that could easily push it around as well as flying through clouds. But our pilots handled the flying and the multiple radios, and the boom operator handled the aerial refueling and got the F-16s the fuel that they needed, despite the hydraulic fluid coating the window. And to top it off, one of the F-16 pilots was a rookie pilot and made his first trip to the tanker. Luckily he had his Instructor pilot with him as well as SRA Racchini to guide him through the challenging task of aerial refueling. But that was just another layer of complexity to the flight. Then of course a few of the F-16s wanted even more fuel then they were originally allocated. This put CPT Studer in the difficult position to quickly figure out how much fuel they could spare the fighters and still maintain enough fuel reserves for the KC-135 to make it back to March ARB safely. And as CPT Adams put it, “Today was a challenging day for everybody. But those eight F-16s got the fuel they needed to complete their necessary training and our crew helped contribute to that.”
Back on the ground, Lt. Col. Brice Middleton, Commander of the 912th put it best. “As busy as it was, with all of the problems you had, those are just issues that they (the aircrew) are going to face in combat situations in the real world in the AOR. Often times these crews are oversees talking to controllers who speak a different language and have to deal with a couple of different radios, including AWACS, ground controllers, the fighter CAP frequencies, so this was just a sample training mission for these folks. I’d rather much see it here in the United States in a controlled environment then to have them see something that busy and chaotic for the first time and not be prepared for it.”