New Hampshire ANG KC-135 refueling flight – “Passing Gas” to the Navy’s Blue Angels Demo Team.
Flying with the Blues
As a prelude to the Boston-Portsmouth Air Show held on the last weekend of August, the New Hampshire Air National Guard assisted in an important mission: to refuel the Navy’s Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornets en route, as they flew from NAS Pensacola to Pease International Tradeport non-stop.
I was part of a contingent of about 20 media and air show “key” personnel that went along to watch the NHANG’s KC-135R in action, refueling the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron for just about 45 minutes near the midpoint of their 3-plus hour flight from the Florida Panhandle to New England.
The pre-flight briefing was initiated by the 157 Air Refueling Wing’s commanding officer, Colonel Paul Hutchinson. He welcomed us and described the Wing’s mission. The example given was that of a medical evacuation flight the Wing had performed a few weeks earlier from Southwestern Asia to the U.S.. Col. Hutchinson highlighted the critical care that wounded soldiers receive; they arrive Stateside in three days or less now, where it took a week or more in the past.
The 157th’s mission has recently changed from an 80%-20% mix of refueling to cargo missions, to almost 100% refueling operations (the noted medical evacuation trip was a rarity). Many of the Wing’s current refueling flights support the medical transport of wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan to hospitals in the USA. Our flight plan was a special type that the military uses from time to time, called an Altitude Reservation, or “ALTRV”. Because we would refuel the formation of jets, we would receive priority over most other types of military activity along our route of flight.
We departed the old Pease AFB (a former SAC air base equipped with FB-111A and KC-135A jets) in southeastern New Hampshire during a rain storm, and broke out into clear and smooth air around 12,000 feet. We ultimately climbed to FL340 (34,000 feet) to head south to a point over the Carolinas, where we’d reverse course and join the Blue Angels at a lower block of altitudes for their refueling.
Just over two hours later, we felt a descent begin, and soon we were in a turn. A few moments later, while standing in the rear of the jet with cameras at the ready, someone said “there they are!” Shortly, out the small exit windows, two or three jets were visible, loitering as the first F/A-18 hooked into the refueling basket that was trailing from a hose attached to the flying boom. We all got to lay down in the refueling “pit” for a few times next to the boom operator, who insured fuel was flowing and the hose and basket apparatus was operating within its envelope.
The original plan was for each of the six Blue Angels jets to take 6000 pounds of fuel in one long coupling, but that plan changed to a pair of 3000 pound transfers. That meant that our time with the Blues was a bit longer than expected, which was OK by all of us non-crewmembers! We took our fill of photos and reveled in the beautiful sight of the Blue Angels jets just feet off our own wingtip. Too soon enough, it was time for their formation to leave and fly ahead… they cruise a bit faster in the Hornets than the KC-135R does.
An hour later, our KC-135 ducked down into the murk and mist around 4000 feet. After some vectors by ATC, we joined the ILS into Pease; we broke out about 600 feet above the ground, around a half a mile out from the lights that marked the end of the runway. Looking out the right cockpit window as we flared to land, I could see the Blue Angels F/A-18s already parked on the ramp.
Story and photos by Ken Kula