After 18 hours aboard a KC-135 to reach Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, I had my feet on the ground for exactly 38 hours before I would be back in the air once again. But this time it was different. This time, I would be on a combat mission over Afghanistan supporting the Operation Enduring Freedom by refueling US and Coalition fighter jets that were covering troops on the ground.
In a span of 48 hours, I would fly two combat sorties with the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in a KC-135 refueling tanker. During those two missions we would refuel 16 aircraft during our 17.6 hours aloft, offload 78,200 pounds of fuel to thirsty USAF and Dutch F-16s, and have travelled 8,600 nm across all of Afghanistan.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, for the past 12 years, refueling tankers from Transit Center at Manas have flown over Afghanistan to ensure USAF and Coalition aircraft receive the fuel necessary to successfully complete their missions.
Last year along the 22 EARS offloaded 20 million gallons of fuel to over 12,000 combat aircraft. This allowed them to support 904 Troops-in-Contact events.
What does all that mean? Basically troops on the ground have air support when they needed it. Typically, an F-16 loaded with bombs and missiles, as was the case with all of the aircraft I saw, has a range of about 300 nm, which would limit the aircraft to about 2-3 hours.
If their target was an hour away from their home base, then the F-16 would take an hour to reach there, less then an hour on station, then an hour back before running out of fuel. But thanks to the crews of the KC-135, the F-16 can extend their range and time on station to over 8 hours!
My morning for both flights started very, very early for me. I was still trying to adjust to the time and fight off the jet lag. But this was combat, and just another day for the dozen crews that called TC Manas home.
As with any flight, there are several key checkpoints before a flight happens. The first is a “Show Time,” which is when you show up to the Operations building to start your mission brief, get weather updates, check out your guns, grab your “Secrets” (a bag full of the daily tactical frequencies, callsigns, duress codes, and other stuff I probably shouldn’t’ know about)
Next is the “Step Time,” which is when you actually step to the KC-135. In our case that was when you go out to the crew van and drive down a bumpy Kyrgy road with several checkpoints onto the flightline.
As we did this, I could see that ours was not the only mission that day. C-17’s were getting loaded and flying off to Bagram AFB that day with cargo and troops being deployed downrange.
Once we reached the aircraft, maintenance crews from the 376 EAMXS had already been out there ensuring our aircraft was in great flying condition, which it always was. The Pilot did a quick walk around of the aircraft checking vital parts and one last verification.
And inside, the Co-Pilot and Boom Operator were performing their mission essential checks.
Finally there was the “Take Off Time,” which is when the mission actually started. Winds favored a runway 08 departure on both of our missions with a left upwind turn towards the amazing Kirghiz mountains.
The benefit of flying out of Kyrgyzstan is that it is a short one hour flight over Tajikistan and you are immediately in Afghanistan. This allows the USAF to immediately support any aircraft operation in the AOR.
As this was a combat mission, the exact route of flight was classified. All I know is that on my first mission, we were supporting fighter jets in the North / Northwestern area of Afghanistan. I was told that the mountain ranges off in the distance was the Pakistan boarder, which we were not allowed to cross into.
On my second sortie, we refueled fighter jets in Eastern Afghanistan along the Iranian boarder, which we were not allowed to cross into. Definitely do not want to cause any international incidents. But on our second flight, there was a transmission from an Iranian controller on Emergency Guard Frequency 121.5 that an aircraft has strayed into Iranian airspace and to turn around immediately else interceptors would be scrambled. I was told that the Iranian boarder was mobile depending on the controller. 🙂
As we took off from Manas International airport, it was like we were any other aircraft flying that day. We spoke to Manas Tower to get our clearance to take off, and then were handed off to Center which guided us along our filed flight route into Afghanistan. Once we reached Afghanistan, we then went “Tactical.” What that means is that we were no longer being controlled by Afghani ATC, but instead were being routed and watched over by a USAF AWACS aircraft. We switched over to encrypted frequencies and started using codewords. Some real Tom Clancy stuff!
The 376th EOSS Operations Group had lined up aircraft almost immediately upon entering Afghanistan. Typically there are several aerial refueling tracks that are scattered across Afghanistan. These tracks change frequently and are updated in the “Secrets” bag that are known to each “friendly” aircraft in the AOR.
Our KC-135 would fly from one AR Track to another to another and then return back to TC Manas. As we orbited each track, we had scheduled F-16s that came up for fuel as they needed it.
As we transitioned between refueling tracks, we all took a moment to take a break or grab a bite to eat.
Here I am having a steel picnic at 23,000 feet over Afghanistan.
This was a very intricate ballet that happened in the sky. Schedulers from across the region had to coordinate dozens of aerial assets so that each had adequate fuel and at the same time accomplished their mission of supporting the troops on the ground.
The F-16 had to take off from it’s home base, start its mission, then fly skyward to an aerial refueling track for it’s life saving fuel. Then a KC-135 had to be in the area to give that much needed fuel. If it wasn’t, then that F-16 had to scrub it’s mission and fly off and land at an alternate base, thus ending the air cover that it was providing to troops on the ground.
Sometimes it just didn’t work out like it did on paper. F-16s often fly as a pair. Wingmen. Someone to watch out for you and help you out along the way.
One pair of F-16s from the 301st FW out of Texas, but temporarily deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan were such customers.
A pair of these F-16s that provide close-air support and armed over watch for the Service members on the ground, were slated to get fuel from our tanker, SHELL 74, but were engaged in a heated close-air support mission.
This changed the plans and the tempo onboard SHELL 74 increased dramatically. VIPER 21 and his wingman VIPER 31 were below us somewhere doing something important. VIPER 31 came up as a solo aircraft to quickly get fuel as VIPER 31 provided air support to the troops on the ground.
Normally aircraft receiving fuel fly a standard pattern around the refueling tanker. They hold off the left wing, drop down and aft of the tanker and approach the boom slowly. Then they finish and float gently to the right wing as the rest of their flight gets fuel.
This did not happen for VIPER 21. I was in the rear boom pod of the KC-135 with the Boom Operator (“Boom”), laying on our bellies and looking backwards when I saw an F-16 flash by in the opposite direction less then a 1,000 feet below us. It pulled a hard left, high G turn and expertly was in the Pre-contact position and closing in towards the boom fast!
Within seconds, VIPER 21 was receiving fuel as quickly as it could take it. Less then two minutes went by and VIPER 21 was off the boom and diving back down towards the fight.
VIPER 21 informed the tanker that VIPER 31 was low on fuel and 35 miles northwest of the refueling track, requesting that the tanker go towards the F-16 vs it having to waste precious time to fly towards the tanker. Immediately we banked left and headed towards the F-16.
We were deep in the middle of “Yo-Yo Operations” where one aircraft stays low to the ground to provide close-air support and his wingman flies up to the Tanker for fuel. Then the wingman returns to the fight and the other aircraft flies up to the tanker for it’s turn at getting fueled. This way there is continuous ground cover and the aircraft get fuel, albeit a little at a time vs one continuous fill up.
You do all you can to get that fuel and get back in the fight!
All in all, that one mission, SHELL 74 fueled 10 F-16s for 38,400 pounds of fuel over western Afghanistan; including 2 Dutch F-16s.
The second day, SHELL 73 fueled 6 F-16s for 39,800 pounds of fuel over eastern Afghanistan.
Inherently there is always risk in anything you do. Crossing a busy intersection, driving a car, waking up in the morning. Two planes flying at 300 mph at 23,000 feet over Afghanistan, flying less then 25 feet from one another and then trying to fly a stick into a hole of the other aircraft and force fuel into it isn’t the most dangerous task in the world, but it isn’t the easiest.
When we were refueling the Dutch RNLAF F-16s, we experienced the worst turbulence I had ever been in. The planes were being tossed around the sky like a rag doll. Add in that the Boom Operators window was coated in de-icing fluid so his vision was obscured.
Bad for photography, but even worse for trying to give fuel to an F-16 that would have to cancel his mission and leave the troops on the ground unsupported. They tried for 10 minutes before making a solid contact.
On May 3rd, 2013, SHELL 77, a KC-135 from the 22nd EARS crashed Kyrgyzstan shortly after take off, killing all three crew members on board. The plane was from McConnell AFB, the crews were from Fairchild AFB, but the loss was felt across the base and the entire Air Force. A small memorial adorns the walls of the 376th AEW crew lounge.
And with all the tankings safely accomplished it was time to sit back and RTB.
After 17.6 over Afghanistan seeing the dedication and direct impact these crews have, I was impressed. Having flown only on local training missions and being both on the tankers and the receivers side of the boom, I now get it. Those long, boring, safe, training flights over the United States all come together so that crews from the 22nd EARS can refuel the fight where it counts and when it counts, no matter what the conditions. NKAWTG!