New Hampshire Air National Guard Training Mission with Thunderbirds
Not Just a Routine Training Mission…
PACK61 and 62 Heavy flight departed the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease shortly after nine o’clock in the morning. The pair of New Hampshire Air National Guard KC-135R tankers were on a training mission, tasked to fly half way across the country to meet a group of thirsty Air Force jets and offload 60,000 pounds of fuel to them. Along the way, PACK62 boom operator SSgt Samantha Yeanish completed some re-currency training with MSgt Alan Beaulieu, and pilot Major Jeff Denton and copilot Major Paulo Morales got a call from their operations facility that their receivers were running exactly on time. The two pilots then discussed with the lead aircraft (which was PACK61) how best to manage their airspeed to allow the jets to arrive at a predetermined point overhead Nebraska at a prearranged time. Station keeping with PACK61 involved Major Denton using the aircraft’s Traffic Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS) screen and his “Mark 1 eyeball” to maintain the required position of 1/2 mile in-trail and 500 feet above the flight lead, for proper flight alignment. The aircraft were issued a block of altitudes to remain within, ultimately FL310B330, or thirty one thousand through thirty three thousand feet. Slightly more than three hours after liftoff, the pair of tankers descended a few thousand feet and made a course reversal to the right. Now heading eastbound, a formation of seven F-16C jet fighters slid into view below the two larger jets, and split into two smaller flights to begin their first of two air refueling sessions behind the two PACKs.
The New Hampshire Air National Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing (157th ARW) operates eight venerable KC-135R Stratotankers from the former Pease AFB, on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Wing Commander Paul “Hutch” Hutchinson conveyed the unit’s vision of the future during a pre-flight briefing by saying that they are hoping to be assigned new KC-45A tankers (the recent Boeing B767-based winner of the future tanker competition) in the 2016-2017 time frame. That decision will be announced at the end of 2011, or later in 2012. The 157th ARW is already pleased to be a participant in the “Total Force Integration” plan, whereby active duty and traditional Air National Guard personnel work together to increase productivity through increased deployments and taskings. The unit’s flying time is up 35% over the previous year, matching flying hour levels with Wings which operate twice the amount of jets (16 tankers). They lead the Air National Guard tanker force in the amount of hours flown. This achievement has attracted much positive attention, and is in line with the vision of the 157th ARW: “Citizen Airmen building the nation’s most respected Air National Guard unit and serving America, New Hampshire and the community in partnership with families and employers”. The Wing actively hopes to get the new tanker equipment, and possibly provide training to others in it too.
It was a routine training mission, except for the fact that the F-16 receivers were the US Air Force Thunderbirds. But then again, it was still routine. The same air to air refueling standards used around the world by the U.S. and its’ allies are practiced by the Thunderbirds, who deploy almost weekly from their home base in Nevada during the air show season. The Thunderbirds were enroute to the 2011 Boston Portsmouth Air Show at Pease, and after their first refueling from a Kansas-based tanker overhead Colorado, would fly together with PACK 61 and 62 from west of Lincoln NE until their third refueling ended near Phillipsburg PA two hours later. Each fighter would receive fuel twice while in the company of the PACK flight. The first refueling took place between FL240B270 (or twenty four thousand through twenty seven thousand feet), the second at the lower block of FL210B240. A noticeable difference in the stability of the receivers “while on the boom” was explained by the other boom operator, MSgt Gary Howard, who said that at lower altitudes the air is denser, and lends to more stable flight.
The Thunderbird pilots slipped on and off the boom fast too, with no more than a few minutes needed to “top off their tanks”. On a previous flight, the Navy’s Blue Angels stayed attached much longer, and again there was a good explanation: the boom method used by the Air Force jets offloads over 6000 pounds of fuel per minute, while the hose method utilized by the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornet only pumps at roughly 1000 pounds of fuel per minute.
Commonly known as the Pease airport, the facility hosts the 157th ARW on the north side of the field, and civilian operations to the south end. Named after a New Hampshire B-17 pilot who was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously during World War II, the airport’s 11,321 foot runway can accept any aircraft in the world, and was an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle. Civilian charter flights carrying military personnel back home from overseas deployments routinely land at Pease for refueling and refreshments at all hours of the clock. Thunderbird 3, Major John Gallemore, recalled during a planeside interview that he landed at Pease at 2AM one morning in 2008 from an overseas deployment, before he was a Thunderbird. He was amazed to be greeted by a few hundred folks from the “Pease Greeters”, a local group of people who meet each arriving flight to welcome the troops home. He always wanted to return, and got his chance during the air show. Although eight NHANG tankers are based there, a total of twenty seven tankers can be staged at one time from the base, serviced by a modern fuel farm and four hangars. The 157th supports part of the Northeast Tanker Task Force (along with the Maine ANG’s 101st ARW), providing air refueling capability for planned missions, or for unplanned missions with a crew and aircraft on a four-hour alert. Colonel Hutchinson highlighted the aeromedical evacuation mission the Wing can provide, transporting critically injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S. mainland in a matter of hours, not the previous days it took a decade or so ago. The Wing’s KC-135s can be reconfigured into an aerial ambulance to carry wounded, or they can aerial refuel a specially equipped C-17 transport carrying patients, so valuable time isn’t spent on the ground.
In between the time spent refueling on the boom, the Thunderbirds migrated to the top of the flight’s block of FL240B270, to conserve fuel. Just south of Detroit, over Lake Erie, the whole flight of nine aircraft were descended into their lower block of altitudes and refueling commenced the final time. During mission planning, the determination to carry 60,000 pounds of off-loadable fuel (the amount that was needed for all seven of the Thunderbirds to reach Pease) on both PACK 61 and 62 was reached, in case of one aircraft became unusable due to maintenance, etc.. As soon as the F-16s got their fill, PACK 61 and 62 requested a higher altitude block on their way back to Pease, and were issued a climb to FL390B410. The plan was to go fast, so that the Thunderbirds’ planned arrival maneuvering practice and its resulting Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) would occur after the tankers landed; otherwise a 45 minute airborne hold, clear of the Pease area, could be expected. PACK 62’s speed was reduced some 100 miles west of Pease, and the leader, PACK 61 began to pull away for their breakup and individual landings. Ultimately, PACK 62 became number three in the pattern, following a C-5 Galaxy and PACK61 to land. As PACK 62 turned off of the runway towards our parking spot, right on cue, the Thunderbirds streaked overhead the airfield and commenced their familiarization of the airport and surrounding airspace. More than just a routine training mission? In some respects yes, in others, no. Flying with eight other aircraft in formation wasn’t a routine event, nor was refueling the Thunderbirds. The in-flight refueling process and the teamwork between the Air Nation Guard and the active Air Force members was certainly a routine event though, one that occurs every day.
A special note of thanks to Wing Commander Paul Hutchinson, PACK 62’s crew: Major Jeff Denton, Major Paulo Morales, MSgt Gary Howard, MSgt Alan Beaulieu and SSgt Samantha Yeanish, and Public Affairs Officer Lt Aaron McCarthy for their time and insight into the 157th ARW’s mission and the subsequent flight.