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Refueling "Spirit" in the sky

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Mota
  • 434th ARW Public Affairs
Grissom's KC-135R Stratotankers can transfer more fuel in eight minutes than a gas station can pump in 24 hours, but its ability to transfer that fuel after dark moving at speeds up to 500 mph is truly amazing.

The 72nd and 74th Air Refueling Squadrons conduct around the clock operations and training in order to meet Air Force mission objectives.

"Our primary mission is to provide aerial refueling to enhance the Air Force's mission of global reach and global power," said Col. Doug Schwartz, 434th Air Refueling commander. "Our ability to operate around the clock is a key asset that allows us to accomplish those missions." 

That around the clock capability was demonstrated during a recent nighttime aerial refueling mission over Southern Kansas. During the flight a 434th ARW KC-135 refueled a B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing, 13th Bomb Squadron Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. 

"One of our biggest challenges during nighttime refueling is depth perception," said Master Sgt. Christopher Nack. "We have to rely on visual cues like the shadows from the boom onto the receiver aircraft to help us judge the distance between them.

"Those shadows are produced by the natural light from the moon and stars," added Nack. 

Each boom operator is required to complete a certain number of nighttime refueling hours to maintain their qualifications.

"Regardless of weather or lighting conditions, we have to be able to accomplish the mission in order to maintain global reach," explained Nack.

When lighting conditions are not optimal, boom operators and pilots rely on artificial light to conduct the mission.

"You never know what the sky is going to be like above the clouds," said Senior Airman Zach Holmes, 74th Air Refueling Squadron inflight refueling technician.  "If there isn't enough artificial light we have rely on lights on the outside of the aircraft."

The KC-135 has a system of exterior lights located on the belly of the aircraft just behind the nose gear and flood lights on the boom pod used to pass fuel to the receiver aircraft.

"We are in constant communication with the receiving aircraft," explained Holmes. "Using the belly lights, we have the ability to position the receiver aircraft in the optimal position to receive fuel."

"Being able to receive fuel at any hour is critical on the battlefield," said Lt. Col. Rich Day, 74th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. "The training we receive from these local missions prepares us for what we do when we are deployed."

"At night we lose a certain amount of our depth perception and rely heavily on our instruments, because it is easy to become disoriented," explained Day. "You do it a lot and you get used to it, but without practicing that wouldn't be the case."

'Doing it a lot' is something the 434th Air Refueling Wing does well, and last year the wing demonstrated just that when it logged a historical record of 7,030 flight hours for fiscal 2015. 

"We had over 3,600 combat flight hours this year, and it proves that we can employ our capabilities because our training prepared us to do so," Lt. Col. Todd Moody, 74th Air Refueling Squadron director of operations. "This [record] shows that preparation and training at home station provides what the warfighter needs wherever we deploy to, and kudos to maintenance Airmen for allowing us to accumulate this many flying hours."

The 434th ARW is the largest KC-135R Stratotanker in the Air Force Reserve Command. Airmen and aircraft from the 434th ARW routinely deploy around the world in support of the Air Force mission and U.S. strategic objectives.

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