Its 7am on a Thursday and, whilst most people are busy thinking about heading off to work, the operations room of the 351st Air Refuelling Squadron is already a hive of activity. With multiple flights due to head out during the morning on various sorties, the crew of Quid42 are already gathered running through the final preparations for their mission more than three hours before the planned take off time.
The planned task was to head to Air-to-Air Refuelling Area 4, known more simply as AARA 4, a designated refuelling track that forms a rectangular shape pointing south-west to north-east and is situated off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. Once in position, Quid42 would be joined by a flight of four F-15E aircraft of the 494th Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. With the close proximity of the home bases, the two units, along with the other F-15 units of the 48th Fighter Wing, often find themselves working together on both training flights and deployments abroad and this particular flight was to top up the tanks of the four aircraft as they returned from a short deployment in Norway.
Having finalised the intended route to AARA 4 and obtained the latest weather information, the crew headed into their briefing. Leading the brief was Captain G Anatov (or GA to his fellow aircrew) – who would be in charge of the aircraft during the flight. The brief consists of running through every possible check and detail that can be done on the ground so that everybody is aware not only of pertinent information but also of their own role to play in the flight. A checklist of specific items guides Capt Anatov through the details starting with the basics of the flight itself covering the intended routes and receivers before moving on to specifics such as agreeing which pilot would be performing take off and landing. Emergency procedures are covered in detail including set scenarios such as engine fire on start and control surface failures during take-off. Divert airfields are pre-planned as part of the route planning and for this flight the primary divert base was Ramstein, Germany although in the event of a hydraulics failure a diversion to Moron, Spain would take place due to the length of available runway. The Boom Operator on the flight, A1C Kayla Whorley, is integral to the refuelling operation and provides detail on the fuel to be offloaded, in this case 60k lbs available, and emergency breakaway procedures if any issue were to occur during the refuel itself. After a chance for any final questions to be raised, the brief concludes to allow the crew time for final preparations before heading to the aircraft. It may seem strange that an experienced and highly trained aircrew repeat this process before every flight but it is essential to the safety of those on board that everyone be fully briefed on roles, responsibilities and procedures.
Briefing complete and with just over an hour to go until planned take off, the crew transport arrives to ferry personnel and equipment to the aircraft. For this mission, Quid42 flight would be using KC-135R 58-0001. With in-depth maintenance of the KC-135 fleet taking place in the United States, it is common for airframes to be moved around units to accommodate this and 58-0001 joined the 100ARW fleet in April 2012 following previous allocation to the 141st ARW at Fairchild AFB (although it had previously been based at Mildenhall during the late 2000’s). One of the oldest aircraft in the entire fleet, it was originally delivered to the United States Air Force in February 1959 as a KC-135A before being converted to KC-135R configuration in 1990. On 19th December 1992 and under the command of Capt Jeff Kennedy, 58-0001 set a world distance record for the longest non-stop and unrefuelled flight from Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa, Japan to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. Today, this aircraft is one of two at Mildenhall that carries nose art relating back to the units World War Two history as the 100th Bomb Group based at Thorpe Abbots, Norfolk. The units history is of upmost importance to the 100th ARW and this is clearly visible not only within the units heritage room on base but also by the ‘Square D’ tail code that is still worn on their aircraft today. In September 2012, 58-001 was given new nose art in honour of one of the units WW2 veterans, Capt (Ret) Robert Wolff. In command of B-17F 42-30061, Lt Wolff (at that time) never had chance to have his own nose art applied to his aircraft. Having been forced to land in Africa after sustaining damage during a bombing run over Regensburg, Germany on 17th August 1943, his aircraft was left for repair whilst he returned to the unit in England. Just one month later, and flying a different aircraft, Lt Wolff and his crew were captured and he remained a prisoner of war until being rescued by the 3rd US Army in late April 1945. Aircraft 58-0001 now carries ‘Wolff Pack’ nose art signifying the markings that could not be completed before his capture.
Whilst the co-pilot and boom operator climb aboard to start their internals checks, it is the commander’s responsibility to complete external checks and accept the aircraft from the ground crew who complete the majority of the initial preparation. A total of 14 mandatory checks and numerous others are carried out as the aircraft Captain walks around the jet with the ground crew checking everything from cable runs, engine panels and landing gear door operation to the obligatory ‘tyre kick’. Once completed and signed off, he joins the rest of the crew for the pre-flight checks on board. Many people may be used to boarding a commercial aircraft to go abroad on holiday however climbing aboard a KC-135 is a very different experience. The vertical crew ladder leads directly into the cockpit as the main entry/exit point for the aircraft. From here the cockpit exit leads into the cargo hold – an empty expanse devoid of any major natural light source with exposed cabling lining the roof and tie down points across the floor. The functional nature of the aircraft is clear to see and very little comfort is provided for the occasional passengers that may be on board who are provided with canvas seats lining either side of the shared cargo area.
Both pilot and co-pilot run through the pre-flight checklist in the cockpit whilst A1C Whorley checks and double checks that everything is secure within the cargo bay. Working from back to front, ratchet straps ensure that nothing, no matter how small, can cause a danger to crew or aircraft during the flight. During receiver checks with ‘Banter Ops’, the Mildenhall bases Operations frequency, the crew discover the first change to the planned flight as word is passed that two of the four intended receivers are not yet off the ground and may not make the rendezvous. Despite this, the remaining two aircraft would be on time and, after a short wait, it was time for engine start to meet the designated take off time. With all four CFM-56 engines running, even at idle speed on the ground, the noise inside the aircraft is immense and even with earplugs and a headset the residual sound is above that of any commercial airliner further showing that the KC-135R is designed purely for its functional role.
Weather in the vicinity of Mildenhall could not have been much better for take off. With almost no cloud above and a light 10-knot wind blowing directly down runway 29, QUID42 started its long taxi from hardstand 29 (on the southern side of the base) along taxiway Bravo to the active. With no delay, the tanker smoothly accelerated before GA, at the controls for this phase of the flight, eased it into the air to start the flight. The planned flight path meant a right hand turn to head over Marham before proceeding northbound towards Leeming. Hugging the east coast at 29,000ft and flying just off the coast of Newcastle, Dundee and Aberdeen it was an hour before reaching Peterhead where the crew broke from the mainland route to head into AARA4.
Descending to 24,000ft for the refuelling, A1C Whorley repositioned from the cockpit to the boom area at the rear of the plane. Like the rest of the KC-135, this area is designed for function rather than comfort and the boom operator’s position is essentially a small horizontal bench, which is reached by climbing down into a small compartment and crawling into place. From here, the view looks directly out to the rear of the aircraft through what, from the ground, seems like an incredibly small window no larger than 3ft by 2ft but offers a wide viewing field once airborne. Running through final checklists for the refuelling operation itself, QUID42 enters a racetrack pattern as it waits for the planned receivers to arrive.
After a short wait, Panther 11 flight makes contact via the radio to signify their arrival. After an initial location mix up, the two F-15Es joined the tanker in AARA 4 and approached from the rear in formation. The F-15E Strike Eagle is a multi-role fighter manufactured by McDonnell Douglas flown with a crew of two – Pilot and WSO (Weapons System Officer). A development from the earlier A and C models, the E variant is fitted with a pair of Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) on the side of the fuselage underneath the wing roots that further extend the capacity of the aircraft and enables over 23,000 lbs of fuel to be carried internally.
The two aircraft to be refuelled on this mission were both part of the 494th Fighter Squadron and were returning from a short deployment to Norway. First in line for fuel was PANTHER 11, 91-0320, approaching slowly to the boom from directly behind. With the boom receptacle on the F-15E behind the pilot’s head, the WSO ensures that the connection to the boom takes place cleanly whilst the pilot ensures that they are lined up against the markers on the underside of the tanker. Making contact first time, PANTHER 11 started taking on fuel whilst A1C Whorley worked to ensure that the boom remained in contact utilising the limited control available from the two control surfaces mounted to the end. For the pilot of the aircraft being refuelled, trying to keep in perfect position in relation to the tanker is a visibly tough challenge and despite hard work by both the pilot and boom operator, breaks in contact can occur as experienced during this particular refuel. A well-practised and rehearsed procedure, PANTHER11 dropped back from the tanker allowing for the boom to be reset and contact reinitiated. After a total of 5 minutes, including the breakaway time, the refuel of PANTHER 11 was complete and, after dropping back off the boom, broke away hard to the starboard side to hold outside of the refuelling area and await his wingman. Following immediately was the second aircraft of the flight; PANTHER12 91-0335 which approached and within 2 minutes of his wing mans departure was already taking on board fuel. With no issues encountered, PANTHER12 dropped back from the tanker after only 5 minutes attached, pulled hard to the port side and also headed back to RAF Lakenheath.
Mission complete and boom secured back into standard flight configuration, QUID42 turned to back inland before heading back down the same route towards Suffolk. Further emphasising the ever changing nature of operations, shortly after leaving AARA 4 a potential re-task to the coast of Wales for further refuelling activity was passed to the crew by Operations staff at Mildenhall. After a careful analysis of the aircraft and remaining fuel state, the Captain took the decision to continue back to RAF Mildenhall. Although fuel state may have allowed, an issue with the aircraft was detected by the crew during the initial refuelling contacts and, as safety is of utmost importance, it was felt necessary to return to base rather than risk any further issues. Taking slightly longer than the route up, after just over an hour the descent into the approach commenced with 1LT Anguita at the controls. A series of turns and altitude adjustments guide the crew back down towards the ILS approach on the 29 runway at Mildenhall before the final direction change is made just South of RAF Honington. With constant adjustments to the controls to keep on the track of the runway, QUID42 was soon back on deck. Due to the aircraft issue that halted the re-tasking, the planned afternoon of circuits at Mildenhall was also cancelled and 58-0001 returned to hardstand 21, shutdown, and handed back to the ground crew – mission complete.
Air-to-Air refuelling is something that is essential to modern military flight operations, something that is clearly evidenced on entering the operations building of the 351st ARS, 100th ARW with a large sign displaying the initials NKAWTG – Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas. The constant support of operations, both local and abroad, sees the unit refuel everything from the 48th Fighter Wing F-15s to the exceptionally large C-5. Whilst you may think that the pilot of the receiving aircraft has the majority of the work to do, spending a day with the crew of a KC-135 shows just how critical their role is in the entire operation. If it wasn’t down the ability of pilot and co-pilot to get the tanker where it needs to be and when, along with the skill of the boom operator to maintain contact even during tough flight conditions, logistical movement of fighter and transport aircraft around the world would be a much more difficult task greatly reducing the fighting ability of the force. Although the KC-135 may be an ageing platform, it is still more than capable of completing the task for which it was designed.
AeroResource would like to thank SAC C Griffiths and TSgt N Joiner for their assistance in arranging our visit. Special thanks are given to the crew of QUID42 (Capt G Anatov, 1LT P Anguita and A1C K Whorley) whose kindly allowed us to accompany them on their flight and could not have been more welcoming and helpful.
The below video shows the taxi and takeoff of flight QUID42 from RAF Mildenhall and subsequently routing out on its way to the planned rendezvous.