Members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Have a Turkey Christmas

 

Written by Shad West

 

Published January 22, 2007

 

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 A Utah National Guard Kc-135R prepares to depart Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, for another refueling mission in December 2006.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

 A Utah National Guard KC-135R prepares to depart Incirlik Air Base,

Turkey, for another refueling mission in December 2006.

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing—who have steadily trickled home since the New Year from a month-long deployment to Turkey—may have missed the holidays but not the importance of their mission.

Their KC-135R Stratotanker refuelers acted as mobile gas stations in the sky for aircraft deploying into and out of the Middle East. The aircrafts’ mission was to give up their fuel to other aircraft referred to as receiver aircraft so that these aircraft could then carry out the mission of air supremacy and ground support for troops in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Based at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the Wing typically flew sorties over the Black and Mediterranean Seas where they supported aircraft flying in and out of bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.    

“Turkey is ideal because it is centrally located for both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Lt. Col. Kurt Davis said. “It is a great strategic location and the weather is good. Incirlik has been a well-established air base since the Korean War.”

Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynn, second from left, receives a briefing from members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynn, second from left,

receives a briefing from members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing.

Davis was the 90th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron director of operations during the deployment.

Saving lives on the ground

Air refueling has become a top priority for the Air Force. It cuts down on the amount of time an aircraft sits on an air field, allowing more flights in and out. Ground crews can concentrate on loading and unloading cargo, which can be done quickly without having to worry about refueling the planes.

“They don’t have to sit on the ground for very long,” Davis said. “Twenty or thirty  minutes is the longest they need because they know they can get fuel in the air.”

Air refueling also cuts down on the number of ground targets for insurgents. Not only does it eliminate a sitting aircraft as a target, but also the storage containers, trucks and personnel associated with ground refueling. 

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynn shares a laugh with 151st Air Crew members at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynn shares a laugh

with 151st Air Crew members at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

“Specifically, what [air refueling] does is eliminate the need to convoy fuel into these bases,” Said Lt. Col. Ron Blunck, 90th Expeditionary Air Refueling Maintenance Squadron commander. “It eliminates the risk that is associated with ground convoys.”

Boomers at the controls

Utah Air Guardsmen typically fueled C-17 and C-5 aircraft originating from European Air Bases. Support missions for both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom mostly originate from air bases in Germany and the United Kingdom. Ramstein Air Base and RAF Mildenhall have become giant staging depots for supplies needed by troops on the ground in both areas of operation.

In a little more than 30 days, the 151st flew 84 sorties and offloaded more than 4 million pounds of fuel. That’s more than 700,000 gallons. Their sorties were receiver driven, meaning there had to be a request by another aircraft for fuel. Business was booming for the Utah-based unit.

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, right, is greeted at Incirlik by Col. Murrell Stinnette, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, right, is greeted at Incirlik by

Col. Murrell Stinnette, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing.

“Most days we would get six  to 10 missions scheduled,” Davis said, “but with only four aircraft there was no way we could handle that many.”

Operations on the ground and in the air can be fluid, and the tanker crews have to be flexible. Davis said they were the sole refueling unit flying out of Turkey in December. Operations both in the sky and on the ground were around the clock, it just depended on the flight schedules of the receiver aircraft.

“It all comes down to timing,” Davis said.

Flying out of Incirlik, tankers would position themselves over the Black Sea for flights in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq or over the Mediterranean Sea for aircraft flying in and out of other areas of responsibility. During a typical sortie, boom operators or ‘boomers’ would offload about 95,000 pounds of fuel.

“You could sit there a long time if you weren’t offloading a lot of gas,” Davis said.

When a receiver would pull up into position behind the KC-135, the boomers, who are enlisted flight crew members, would get to work. The 151st sent 16 of their boomers with the six flight crews on the deployment.

Boomers actually fly the boom into position and place it into the receiver aircraft’s tank. Then another crew member turns on the pump and the fuel is transferred from the tanker’s fuel tank into the other aircraft’s tank. It’s a challenging but rewarding job for those lucky enough to be called a Boomer.

 “It is a very rewarding job,” Chief Master Sgt. Doug Cline said. “Every situation is different. Our job can be difficult depending on the weather.”

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet and Brig. Gen. Brent Winget, center, with members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing during their visit to Incirlik.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet and Brig. Gen. Brent Winget, center, with members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing during their visit to Incirlik.

High winds, bad lighting and night operations add to the challenge. For the most part, Cline said they were paired up with C-17 or C-5 receivers.

“They really don’t need our gas flying downrange,” Cline said. “But they really don’t like the idea of refueling down range. Flying the commodities downrange means there is one less convoy. If one air refueling mission saves one guy on the ground then it is worthwhile.”

Maintainers gear up before and perform during deployment

The 151st Air Refueling Wing knew they would be “in the bucket” for this deployment almost two years ago. In the fall of 2005 the Wing received the first of eight ‘new’ KC-135R aircraft. In fact, their new aircraft were actually more than 40 years old. Maintenance crews knew they had their work cut out for them. Crews spent nearly a year upgrading the aircraft and preparing them for deployments just like the one to Turkey.

“These aircraft were in terrible shape when we got them from the Active-duty side,” Blunck said. “We had been in conversion when this tasking came down. I knew we wouldn’t have any trouble filling this tasking, our maintainers had worked too hard.”

For every hour a flight crew spends in the air, there are maintainers performing at least 10 hours of inspections, repairs and routine maintenance on the aircraft. While deployed in Turkey, ground crews worked 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day.  

A 151st Air Refueling Wing Air Crew prepares the aircraft for a  night-refueling mission in December 2006 at Incirlik Air Base.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

A 151st Air Refueling Wing Air Crew prepares the aircraft for a

 night-refueling mission in December 2006 at Incirlik Air Base.

Blunck said while deployed, ground crews only had to worry about the routine kind of stuff.

“The airplanes held up really well,” Blunck said. “We initially took only four of them, but six were involved when we swapped two at mid tour. We were 100 percent committed, and I’m ecstatic and extremely proud of our Airmen.”

Downtime

It wasn’t all work and no play for members of the 151st while deployed in Turkey.  There were days when the unit was lightly tasked. And for some the holidays were even shared with family. Deploying with the 151st was a husband and wife, four fathers and sons and several brothers.

Blunck was able to spend the holiday with his son, who is also an Air Guardsman. “It was actually a memorable Christmas for us,” Blunck said. “It was somewhat unique to spend the day with him and not the whole family.”

On New Year’s Eve the Wing enjoyed barbecue ribs from Tony Roma’s. The restaurant gave the ribs to the unit at cost and threw in the sauce for free. The ribs were flown over during a mid-tour swap.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynn, left, confers with Lt. Col. Michael Cragun on the tarmac at Incirlik Ai Base, Turkey.

Photo courtesy of the 151st Air Refueling Wing

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynn, left, confers with

Lt. Col. Michael Cragun on the tarmac at Incirlik Ai Base, Turkey.

Distinguished visitors

During the deployment, Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynn and Air Mobility Commander Gen. Duncan J. McNabb paid a visit to Incirlik Air Base and met with several Utah Airmen.  McNabb had lunch with Airmen and answered their questions one on one.

The 151st also refueled both aircraft that incoming Secretary of Defense

Robert M. Gates and outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were on. It was a unique piece of trivia not lost on the Airmen.

“It was neat to hear the pilots say the Secretary of Defense is on the plane you are refueling,” Cline said. “It’s also pretty funny to hear that he is busy taking pictures of the process with his digital camera.”