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10 years of Enduring Freedom: Air refuelers 'build the airbridge' to success

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Tanker maintenance troops from the 319th Air Refueling Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., watch as a tanker from the 22nd ARW at McConnelll AFB, Kan., rolls off into the sunset for a night air-refueling mission.  Tanker units from Grand Forks; McConnell; MacDill AFB, Fla; Robins AFB, Ga.; and Fairchild AFB, Wash., combined here for a short time to work together in the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

Tanker maintenance troops from the 319th Air Refueling Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., watch as a tanker from the 22nd ARW at McConnelll AFB, Kan., rolls off into the sunset for a night air-refueling mission for Operation Enduring Freedom on Sept. 27, 2003. Tanker units from Grand Forks; McConnell; MacDill AFB, Fla; Robins AFB, Ga.; and Fairchild AFB, Wash., combined in Southwest Asia for a short time to work together in the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

A U.S. Navy F-18 is refueled by a KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron during an air refueling mission in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility on April 24, 2010. In the first three months of 2010, Airmen supporting the KC-10 deployed air refueling in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility flew more than 1,000 sorties offl-loading more than 108 million pounds of fuel to more than 6,600 aircraft in support of combat operations. The 908th EARS, as part of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, supports operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol/Released)

U.S. Navy F-18 is refueled by a KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron during an air refueling mission in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility on April 24, 2010. In the first three months of 2010, Airmen supporting the KC-10 deployed air refueling in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility flew more than 1,000 sorties offl-loading more than 108 million pounds of fuel to more than 6,600 aircraft in support of combat operations. The 908th EARS, as part of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, supports operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom and the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

An A-10 Thunderbolt II needing fuel pulls up behind a KC-10 Extender flying over Afghanistan Dec. 14. The tanker is from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, home of the largest air refueling wing in Southwest Asia.  Unit aircrews fly KC-10s and KC-135 Stratotankers in support of wartime operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Justin T. Watson)

An A-10 Thunderbolt II needing fuel pulls up behind a KC-10 Extender flying over Afghanistan Dec. 14, 2006. The tanker is from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, home of the largest air refueling wing in Southwest Asia. Unit aircrews fly KC-10s and KC-135 Stratotankers in support of wartime operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Justin T. Watson)

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Afghanistan.  On Sept. 15, coalition tankers flew 46 sorties and off-loaded approximately 2.4 million pounds of fuel to 210 receiving aircraft.  (DOD photo/Navy Lt. Peter Scheu)

A Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Afghanistan on Sept. 7, 2006. (Department of Defense photo/Navy Lt. Peter Scheu)

A KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron refuels a F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron Dec. 11 over Afghanistan.  The KC-10 holds six tanks that carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

A KC-10 Extender from the 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron refuels a F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron Dec. 11, 2008, over Afghanistan. The KC-10 holds six tanks that carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon)

A KC-135R Stratotanker from the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the New Hampshire Air National Guard at Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., refuels a C-5M Super Galaxy from Dover Air Force Base, Del., over northern Canada on June 5, 2011. The C-5M's mission was to complete the first Arctic overflight from Dover AFB to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The plane successfully landed at Bagram just over 15 hours after take-off on June 6, 2011. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

A KC-135R Stratotanker from the 157th Air Refueling Wing of the New Hampshire Air National Guard at Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., refuels a C-5M Super Galaxy from Dover Air Force Base, Del., over northern Canada on June 5, 2011. The C-5M's mission was to complete the first Arctic overflight from Dover AFB to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The plane successfully landed at Bagram just over 15 hours after take-off on June 6, 2011. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

A KC-135 Stratotanker deployed to the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, refuels an F-15E deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, July 30, 2011. This refuel was part of a mission that earned Maj. Joshua Brown, 22nd EARS pilot deployed from the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB, his 18th oak leaf cluster for the Air Medal.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Hank Hoegen)

A KC-135 Stratotanker deployed to the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, refuels an F-15E deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, July 30, 2011. This refuel was part of a mission that earned Maj. Joshua Brown, 22nd EARS pilot deployed from the 93rd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB, his 18th oak leaf cluster for the Air Medal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Hank Hoegen)

An aircraft maintenance Airmen assigned to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing prepares KC-135R Stratotanker for a combat air refueling mission from the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on June 7, 2011. The 376th AEW supports Operation Enduring Freedom and other operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

An aircraft maintenance Airmen assigned to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing prepares KC-135R Stratotanker for a combat air refueling mission from the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, on June 7, 2011. The 376th AEW supports Operation Enduring Freedom and other operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

An aircrew from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron steers a KC-10 Extender down the taxiway of the flightline for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia on May 19, 2010. According to the 380th AEW history office, In the first three months of 2010, Airmen supporting the KC-10 deployed air refueling mission in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility helped the KC-10 fly more than 1,000 sorties offl-loading more than 108 million pounds of fuel to more than 6,600 aircraft in support of combat operations. KC-10s and the Airmen who support them are deployed from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol/Released)

An aircrew from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron steers a KC-10 Extender down the taxiway of the flightline for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia on May 19, 2010. According to the 380th AEW history office, In the first three months of 2010, Airmen supporting the KC-10 deployed air refueling mission in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility helped the KC-10 fly more than 1,000 sorties offl-loading more than 108 million pounds of fuel to more than 6,600 aircraft in support of combat operations. KC-10s and the Airmen who support them are deployed from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Even before the start of Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001, mobility Airmen associated with the U.S. Air Force's air refueling community were already deployed across the globe "building airbridges" that would eventually make the start of OEF a success.

Those mobility Airmen came from bases across the Air Force and were part of a Total Force team of active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve people. With KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders as their weapons systems, history shows they made a significant contribution to the success of ousting the Taliban from power in the first two months of combat operations.

Heroic air refuelers
In the Air Mobility Command History Office publication, "Air Refueling: Without Tankers, We Cannot...," the opening days of air refueling accomplishments for OEF 10 years ago are highlighted.

"Operation Enduring Freedom - literally on the other side of the globe - provided more superlative examples of Total Force support to joint operations," the publication states.

As an example, a narrative describes the efforts of Airmen from the 319th Air Refueling Wing at Grand Forks AFB, N.D., flying KC-135s.

"[They] jumped into the world of bare-base operations and deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility on Sept. 23, 2001. Despite the conditions at its operating location (in Southwest Asia), the wing's deployed aircrews quickly flew 459 sorties and air refueled 1,617 receivers, included a Navy F-14 Tomcat experiencing an in-flight emergency."

Also of note, on Oct. 7, 2001, a Grand Forks KC-135 aircrew of pilot Capt. Dave Pratt, co-pilot Capt. Brandt House and boom operator Senior Airman Caleb Ramsey earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for their effort in flying a KC-135 to successfully refuel a C-17 with no working flight instruments.

"Everyone was up for it," Pratt said in a February 2003 319th ARW Public Affairs news report. "We made the decision together."

The crew learned their instruments went dead after take-off but still met their requirement to aid a C-17 Globemaster III -- low on fuel -- get 75,000 pounds of fuel and get back to their non-disclosed deployed bases in Southwest Asia.

The efforts of Grand Forks AFB deployed aircrews for those early OEF missions were like so many others recognized and unrecognized, the history book states. They all took did what they had to in order to build the "airbridges" to success.

"The rapid re-activation of the airbridge concept played a major role in this operation," the AMC publication states. "Air Force KC-10 (Extenders) deployed to Guam in less than 30 hours to support B-52H Stratofortress and B-1B Lancer deployments, then refueled the bombers pre- and post-strike.

"Additional KC-10s and KC-135s deployed to locations [in Southwest Asia], Japan and Diego Garcia to support bombers, airlifters, reconnaissance and other services' aircraft," the publication further states. "Tanker operations in the vicinity of Afghanistan included direct support of special operations aircraft during the first strikes on Taliban leadership and the refueling of aircraft involved in rescuing the aircrew of a downed MH-53J Pave Low III during the fall of Masar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan)."

The aircraft and its people
The KC-135 is the Air Force's oldest air refueling tanker and during the past 10 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, it's been the most widely-used tanker. The airframe has been deployed to support OEF from numerous bases across active duty, Guard and Reserve base to various bases in Southwest Asia as well as with the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, where it still operates from today.

A KC-135 has "four turbofans, mounted under 35-degree swept wings, that power the KC-135 to take-offs at gross weights up to 322,500 pounds," its Air Force fact sheet states. "Nearly all internal fuel can be pumped through the flying boom, the KC-135's primary fuel transfer method. A drogue...attached to and trailing behind the flying boom, may be used to refuel aircraft fitted with probes. Some aircraft have been configured with the Multi-point Refueling System or MPRS."

Since 2001, KC-10s have been mainly deployed to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at a non-disclosed base in Southwest Asia. Through the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron there, KC-10s and the Airmen who fly and maintain them have supported OEF every day since it started.

From its Air Force fact sheet, it shows the KC-10 -- in addition to the three main DC-10 wing fuel tanks -- "has three large fuel tanks under the cargo floor, one under the forward lower cargo compartment, one in the center wing area and one under the rear compartment. Combined, the capacity of the six tanks can carry more than 356,000 pounds of fuel -- almost twice as much as the KC-135 Stratotanker."

With either the KC-10 or the KC-135, people who fly the planes in support of OEF over the years have said they knew that although they were "behind the scenes," they were very much in the fight.

"It is extremely rewarding knowing that we play a critical and pivotal role in the ongoing war in Afghanistan," said Capt. Sean Flynn, a KC-10 pilot and Reservist who was deployed to the 908th EARS in 2010 from the 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. "With the constant supply of tanker gas, we can enable our fellow service members on the ground and in the air to continue to do their mission."

In October 2003 Maj. Eric Brumskill described how his deployed unit -- the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in Southwest Asia -- was able to integrate Airmen and planes from five different state-side KC-135 units to support OEF missions two years into the operation.

"Having so many units under one commander from one unit and having the director of operations from another unit can be a challenge, but not from here," said Brumskill, formerly the 340th EARS director of operations. "There are always issues with deployed members and home units that must give their inputs about their people. The challenge is finding the right belly button to push to make things happen with no familiarity. Overall, the crews and staff have been nothing but professional, and truly exemplify ''one team -- one fight.'"

'Unsung heroes' still making it happen
In 2003, the history publication states the former vice commander of the 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center, Brig. Gen. Paul Selva, describing tanker Airmen as the "unsung heroes in this whole process."

In the last six years of OEF, the statistics from U.S. Air Forces Central's Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia state the impact the tanker force has made in making not only the OEF mission a success, but also all the missions throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

For example, in 2006, tankers off-loaded more than 871 million pounds of fuel to 42,083 receiver aircraft in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, statistics show. In 2007, they reached 947 million pounds of fuel offloaded to 79,798 receivers.

Furthermore, in 2008 air refuelers reached 1.1 billion pounds of fuel off-loaded to 86,288 receivers, and in 2009 and 2010 they off-loaded 1.07 billion and 1.05 billion pounds of fuel to 82,095 and 82,603 receivers respectively. Through Sept. 30, 2011, the tanker force has off-loaded more than 875 million pounds of fuel to 68,203 receivers. In all the six years, that is more than 5.9 billion pounds of fuel to 441,070 receivers.

No matter the numbers, aircrew members say it's the combined effort by many people that has made the OEF air refueling effort as good as it has been.

"We often fly long hours and in extreme weather conditions," said Flynn. "You really see the big picture while working in the area of responsibility. It takes everyone from the base support staff, to the bus drivers, to the maintainers to help get us to the end result which is a successful mission in which we can deliver well-needed gas to help the fight."

(Note: This is the third in a series of three stories recognizing the 10th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2011.)