N.K.A.W.T.G. – Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas! The elixir of life, and the stuff thirsty planes need to fight and fly. And just an hour drive away is one of the finest US Air Force refueling squadrons, the 6th Air Refueling Squadron from the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, CA.
Recently I had the chance to fly with the fine men and women of the 6th ARS as they conducted a “routine” practice mission out of Travis AFB. But there is nothing routine about 400 tons of heavy metal flying 30 feet in close formation to each other. But more on that in a bit.
On any given mission, with tens of thousands of pounds of fuel being on and off loaded, mission planning is key. The average person may think that you just jump into a jet and take off. This is far from the truth. Mission planning is started weeks prior with the assignment of the crews and defining the mission. Our flight crew consisted of a Pilot, Co-Pilot, Navigator, spare Pilot, and two Boom Operators; a standard crew compliment, except for the extra “Boomer” and Pilot who were getting additional training.
With our flight scheduled to take off at 7:39am, mission planning started hours prior. At 0439, we met at the 6th ARS headquarters and went over the mission profile for the flight. XTNDER 14, the callsign of our KC-10 Extender, was scheduled to be on a two part mission. After a formation take off from Travis AFB, head due west and rendezvous with a KC-135 from the 151st Air Refueling Wing from the Utah ANG. Our KC-10 would then practice receiving fuel from the KC-135. After that practice session for the three pilots, we then meet up with COVERT 33, a C-17 from the 21st Airlift Squadron and the Boomers both pass them fuel along the California coastline.
After our own briefing at the 6th ARS, we then go to Base Operations and coordinate with the other crews in our flight, file our flight plans, and check weather. During this time, my excellent Public Affairs escorts braved the freezing weather to help me get some ramp shots. With gusts up to 35mph, and the sun just barely rising, PA went above and beyond to get me the sunrise shots. 🙂
We then stepped to our airplane, KC-10 79-1950, on the crew bus. The Nav and Boomers were already at the jet getting it prepared for flight while the pilots and I were at Ops. Everyone at Team Travis works together to get a mission in the air. I got a chance to see that first hand that morning. A key part was not functioning properly during the preflight checks, and as we climbed aboard, maintenance was already there swapping the part out. From the fuelers, maintence crew, to the lineman, controllers and down to the doctors and staff at the BX, they all work together to get the mission done and ultimately this one photographer in the air. 🙂
And once we were airborne, it was time to meet up with the KC-135. During our quick flight out to the coast, SSgt Jen Trussell, took a few minutes to show us her “office,” the boom area in the rear of the KC-10. With over a year under her belt, Trussell is an up and coming boomer in the 6th.
But before we knew it, it XTNDER 14 was already in the Aerial Refueling track and behind our UTAH KC-135. The 300,000 lbs, fully loaded KC-135 is capable of offloading 200,000 lbs of fuel to us if needed. But since this is a training mission, we were only going to take on 30,000 lbs.
With both aircraft traveling at over 300 kts, basic physics dictates that the two large metallic bodies want to be drawn together as they get closer to each other. Add in weather, day / night time, skill of the pilots and boomers, and it becomes a very delicate dance between life and death. In combat, getting fuel could mean the difference between going home or having to divert an alternate base. And if this was a refueling over the ocean with no base in sight, the crews either get the precious gas they need or crash. As I sat in the jump seat and saw the boom come closer and closer, I found a new appreciation for the tremendous skill of pilots and boomer of the KC-10 and KC-135 crews.
And then after all the pilots got their contacts, with the auto pilot on and with it off, it was time to break off and meet up with the C-17 crew from the 21st AS and fly down the most scenic aerial refueling track in the US, 6 North / South.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my flight with the Gucci Boys of Travis’s 6th ARS as we refuel a 21st AS C-17.