SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C.-- A group of F-16CM Fighting Falcons take off from the foggy flightline at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. They soar above the clouds and into the airspace over the Atlantic Ocean, heading east until they can no longer see the land behind them. Despite the meticulous checklists run on aircraft before they take flight, the jets are running low on fuel after being airborne for less than an hour.
The pilots are in no danger; the lower-than-normal level of fuel in their engines is intentional. One by one, the F-16s approach a KC-135 Stratotanker, whose massive frame dwarfs the nimble jets as it delicately and precisely provides them with the fuel necessary to complete their flight.
A collaborative training effort with the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., gave 20th Fighter Wing pilots the opportunity to hone mission-critical skills, Dec. 19-22.
“Col. Doug Thies, the 20th Operations Group commander, wanted dedicated tanker support for a week for our local flying operations,” said Capt. Devon Dettloff, 20th Operations Support Squadron chief of wing training. “We call this a business effort. Both the fighter and tanker units benefit from this kind of training.”
The KC-135 is capable of carrying and transferring up to 200,000 pounds of fuel, extending the flying time of aircraft such as the F-16 by eliminating the need for pilots to refuel on land. When refueling, a rigid, telescoping tube known as the boom is extended from the rear of the KC-135 by an Airman on board known as the boom operator.
Buttons and controls at their fingertips, the boom operator lies on his or her stomach in the back of the tanker, peering through a window in the rear of the aircraft’s main cabin in a compartment called the boom pod. As the aircraft in need of fuel approaches from behind, the boom operator directs the pilot into position, extends the boom to make contact with the receiver aircraft, and begins fueling.
Dettloff explained that although Shaw pilots regularly conduct refueling training to remain combat-ready, this training marks the first time Shaw has established and executed a business effort with a tanker unit, providing week-long access to a tanker and its crew. Normally, Shaw pilots meet with a tanker crew in a pre-determined airspace and conduct training before each aircraft returns to their respective bases.
“Having dedicated tanker support means 20th FW pilots have the opportunity to build their experience and renew their currency getting gas from the tanker in a multitude of conditions,” said Dettloff. “Getting gas from the tanker may appear simple, however, it takes some practice to be able to do and requires periodic currency training. [Refueling] at night changes the skillset and needs to be practiced as well.”
While 93rd ARS and 20th FW Airmen took advantage of the opportunity to brush up on mission-critical skills, several Team Shaw spouses had a unique experience of their own aboard the KC-135.
“While the tanker was here for the week, Colonel Thies wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to invest in 20th FW relations with military spouses and educate them via a spouse tanker ride,” said Dettloff.
Spouse rides offer military spouses the chance to get a closer look at the work their significant others do every day by letting them see military equipment and procedures first-hand. In this case, spouses of Airmen from the 20th Maintenance Group and the 20th Operations Group were able to ride in the tanker during refueling training. Some were even able to see their husbands in flight from the boom pod.
“It's always fun to have people on board to show them what we do,” said Capt. Christopher Carte, 93rd ARS KC-135 pilot. “I know the spouses had a great time; they were all smiles the whole time. The tanker is a great platform for spouse rides because we can seat them in the cockpit for takeoff and landing and they can watch the jets refuel from the boom pod.”
Just as the spouse ride established a new level of understanding between Team Shaw spouses and the 20th FW’s mission, the training as a whole established a mutually beneficial relationship between the 20th FW and the 93rd ARS.
“It's good to have relationships like this with other units because it gives our pilots and boom operators experience flying into new airfields and gives the fighters several days of having a dedicated tanker available,” explained Carte. “It helps them maintain their currency and proficiency in air refueling and also extends the time they have in the airspace to accomplish their training. It’s also fun.
“Overall it was a good trip and I hope Shaw and Fairchild continue to work together to keep these business efforts going.”