Flying Gas Station of the USAF during Red Flag 12-3 (Red Forces)
Our tanker mission (Callsign “Gulf 17”) included the refuelling of four F-15C/D (Callsigns “Flanker 1 – 4” and six F-16C (Callsigns “Ivan 1 – 4”) of the 65th and 64th AGRS from Nellis AFB, Nevada.
The mission was planned as a three-hour sortie; departure was from Nellis AFB next to Las Vegas, and the refuelling was planned in the west end of a large training area.
During our photo mission, it was thoroughly checked that we didn’t overfly any secret installations on the ground.
We were brought to a KC-135T on the flight line, our tanker was from 91st ARS/6th AMW from McDill AFB, Florida. This unit deployed a total of six tankers to Nellis AFB for Red Flag 12-3.
Each mission was supported by three to four tankers, of which one was assigned to the Aggressors. Take off was planned for 14:00 local. Our tanker was a KC-135T (s/n 60-0344). The KC-135T is a former KC-135Q, whose main mission was to refuel the SR-71s. One of the differences to the KC-135R is a smaller window at the boom which makes it harder to take good pictures! Other difference include an external spotlight whose control is still at the stick of the boom operator.
The KC-135 belongs to the oldest aircraft family still active in the USAF, they’ve been in service since 1957 (KC-135A) and will continue their service for the forthcoming years. Seven hundred thirty two aircraft were delivered to the USAF, roughly four hundred remain in service today. The KC-135 has ten tanks which house approximately one hundred twenty thousand liters of fuel for refuelling Fighter aircraft can receive from five hundred seventy to seventeen hundred liters of fuel. For bomber and transport aircraft, this rate can be increased up to thirty four hundred liters. The Lockheed C-5 Galaxy needs around thirty minutes to refuel its’ tanks.
Even with the old U.S. Air Force jets, the PDA has found its way. The checks of the crew lasts nearly two hours and we were surprised what they all have to do. During the taxi to the runway or during the flight itself, every five to ten seconds requires decisions to be made, displays watched or switches moved. So, not an easy job for the crew of the KC-135, which still has to do a lot for the safety despite modern technology.
The “boomer” lies in the KC-135 on a upholstered couch and looks through a small window at the receiving aircraft. He can move the boom with a stick. The boom is movable in each direction, it has a length from eight and a half to eleven and a third meters.
At 15:45 local time, our time has come. The first Aggressor F-16C (“Ivan 1” 86-0280, the flagship of 64th AGRS) is approaching the tanker. It is an unusual sight to see the Falcon from that position. It slowly approaches the boom, the connection is made, and the needed fuel starts to flow. After ninety seconds, the F-16 moves to the right and positions itself at the right wing of the KC-135. The next Fighting Falcon had asked for fuel. The whole action takes twenty minutes and during that time you sprint from the boomer to the side-window and back to get pictures. The refuelled jets are on the right side of the tanker, the to-be-refuelled jets are flying on the left side.
After the F-16s, there was a small pause until the expected F-15C/D Aggressors were refueled. After another refuelling of two F-16Cs (“Ivan 1 – 2” again), we were heading back towards Nellis AFB. We were sent into a holding pattern for one hour near Nellis, as the returning fighters had a higher priority for landing.
At 16:55 local we were touching down at runway 21L, taxied to our parking position and said good-bye.
The authors would like to thank the PAO at Nellis AFB for helping us get access for this article, and the crew of the KC-135 from McDill AFB for their patience.