NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY KEDAR KARMARKAR
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, 2021
Last Gas at the Last Frontier…
Think of the 168th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) of the 168th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard (AKANG) as the last gas station of the last frontier. With a fleet of nine Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers, the 168th ARS serves not only the United States Air National Guard (ANG) and active-duty United States Air Force (USAF) but also any allied nation’s assets as they transit to and from the Indo-Pacific and Arctic regions. Pixelsnipers got a chance to speak to Maj. Inga Wuerges who served in the active duty Air Force flying KC-135 Stratotankers from 2004 to 2014. At the end of her active duty career, she ran the Tanker Task Force for Red Flag Alaska exercises. In 2014, she transitioned to the AKANG and has been flying with the 168th ARS in her Guard role. Giving more details of the scope of taskings and geographical area of the operations that the unit is responsible for, Maj. Wuerges said “The tasking of this squadron here is not just air refueling. We execute very diverse missions that include, air refueling, delivering cargo, carrying troops, aeromedical evacuations, and even acting as a radio relay. Since the KC-135 has multiple radios and can loiter for many hours we become a valuable communications relay aircraft. Our Air Refueling Squadron is a multi-versed, multi-tasked unit that is continuously supporting TDYs (temporary deployments), exercises and overseas deployments in addition to the daily local missions within the Alaskan airspace.
The local 354th Fighter Wing here at Eielson AFB demands an extremely busy training schedule to keep their F-16 fighter pilots current and the newly arrived F-35 fighter pilots trained and ready to deploy. We also include in our daily mission requirements to refuel F-22 Raptors, E-3, C-130, and C-17s from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER). We provide Title 10 Active Duty 24/7 Alert mission capability. We primarily deploy within the Pacific region such as Guam, Japan, and Australia to support PACAF (Pacific Air Force), however our crews roll into multiple theaters of operation in Europe for EURCOM (European Command) and Middle East for CENTCOM. We are truly a world-wide deployable asset.”
On hiring new talent, Maj. Wuerges mentioned “We are always looking to hire new motivated crew members. The hiring board convenes at JBER and in fact we do have another coming up this fall. The board fills Alaska ANG vacancies for the C-17, C-130, and KC-135 positions. However, we encourage everyone who’s interested in KC-135 and our unit in particular to come out and meet us in person. For example, the two co-pilots on today’s mission are local Alaskans. They will become aircraft commanders and instructors and hopefully have a long career with our unit. We also have candidates transitioning from active-duty and are prior rated and qualified on the KC-135. If the candidate is selected with no prior flight experience, he or she will follow the same training curriculum as the active-duty Air Force candidates do – they go through the same pilot or boom-operator flight school. The only difference is active-duty Air Force candidate does not know the platform – transport, helicopter, fighter, etc. – or which unit until the selection at the end of the training. The Guard candidate is already selected for the 168th KC-135 unit and once the required training is complete, he or she will be a new member of our unit”. Unlike Maj. Wuerges who was active duty before and transitioned to the Guard, SSgt. Tyler Winterton joined the Guard when he was 17 straight out of high school. Giving his perspective of the journey, he said “I really wanted to fly and my ROTC commander at the time advised me to join the Guard instead of the active duty Air Force. In the Guard, I wanted to be a boom operator from the get-go but you need to pass an interview process for that. I interviewed and unfortunately for me, they had a lot of qualified candidates who were prior service rated. So instead, I became a crew chief on the KC-135 for four years. After that, I applied again and this time was picked up to be a boom operator. So, I have 6 years total, with four of them as a maintainer on the KC-135 and two years as boom operator.”
Highlighting the difference in the experience one gets in an operating environment of an active duty Air Force unit and a Guard unit, SSgt. Winterton added “Working in the Guard unit is like working in a family. We work together for many years and we personally know each other well, whereas in an active duty unit, the folks rotate every 3-4 years. When I was a crew chief, I knew all the pilots and boom operators on the other side, and that was great as I transitioned across the street. We are open with each other, and are a very calm, collected and relaxed lot. This is awesome because in the job that we do, where safety is paramount, one needs that good level of trust and understanding between the pilots and the boom, the maintenance and the aircrew to conduct the mission safely and feel like operating in a family-oriented unit. That leads to a feeling of no matter what I say I trust them to do their job out front, and no matter what they say, they can trust me in the back to do mine to get the mission done.”
Boom Operator training
SSgt. Winterton explained to us the process of training as a boom operator – “The training starts at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas and you are there for a month. You go through two programs – Aircrew fundamentals, which is about a week and covers the terms and definitions of the air crew world and providing a high-level overview of how it all works. The second one is the Basic Boom Operator Course (BBOC) which is around two weeks and again is a high-level overview of what a boom operator is, what are their responsibilities, basics about the KC-135, how the air refueling works, and what the mission is about among others. Once you are done there, you could do the SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) School or you end up with the actual course which is at Altus AFB, in Oklahoma. I went to Altus first. I was there for five months however the school training is not that long. Successfully training all the students through that takes a little longer because of the flight component of the course. Some folks have to re-take sorties, and scheduling, weather and all contribute to the timing. The course itself is divided into several phases. There is an academic phase where you do cargo loading on the aircraft and cover basics, for example how does the Air Force do its publications and checklist for the crew and how does the air-refueling (AR) systems of the aircraft work. Then comes the simulator phase. In this you train for doing the checklists, making contacts, disconnects on aircraft, learning different airframes and getting signed off on emergency procedures. After the simulator phase, then the fun begins, you go to the flight line. You typically get seven rides – sorties 1 through 7 called S1-S7 – and you fly with an instructor. You are trying to get signed off on proficiency on a whole bunch of items that we are required to have as aircrew members.
We normally work with the C-17s as they are also collocated with us at the training school. The instructor signs you off as they evaluate our performance on a couple of sorties and then you have the final check ride with the instructor. Once they have given their blessing then you are a flight level basic qualified aircrew member. As a fresh boom operator out of school, you are only qualified to refuel heavy receivers like the C-17, C-130, C-5 during the day. I did my SERE School after that which went for a month. You return to the Guard unit once all the training is done and then we have the MCT (Mission Continuation Training) phase within the unit. This also covers certifying the boom operator to refuel heavies in the night, and fighters in the day and night. The unit ensures that you are CMR (combat mission ready) qualified as a boom operator from a technical aspect, and you are familiar with the local flying environment from an aviation standpoint.”
Adding more light on the responsibilities of a boom operator, SSgt. Winterton clarified “There is a wide misunderstanding that as a boom operator, you are only responsible for the AR and you spend the entire time sitting at the back. That is not true. When you are not doing AR, we do sit up front with the crew. We are responsible for the weight and balance of the aircraft, loading and unloading of cargo on the KC-135, handling passengers, and we do help as an extra pair of eyes with whatever needs help by the pilots and co-pilots while flying – things like scanning the airspace just outside of the jet, keeping an eye on the headings and altitudes that we need to fly, making sure they have the right clearance, and flight plans are filed, monitoring the many radios, coordinating the AR among other stuff.
We are also the person responsible for getting everyone out of the aircraft – either in normal conditions or emergency situations and that includes deploying the slides, operating the emergency hatches, getting people off. So, if there is an emergency, the boom operator coordinates the egress of people that are inside the jet.”
Providing details on what a typical day looks like for a boom operator, he added “Typical fly day for me is showing up about 2-2.5 hours prior to the takeoff time. We have a mission brief where all the pilots will come in and go over this is what we are doing today, this is where we our flying, and the amount and types of ARs that will occur, safety considerations to cover. For me, I will get the weight and balance done of the aircraft, get the details on the receivers and how much fuel are we going to offload, how much are we carrying and whether they match. Once everyone is clear about the mission, we step to the jet. We do the pre-flight. If all systems are a go, we takeoff and head to our tanker track. We do the AR for the receivers and once they are done and no more receivers are inbound, we head back to base. Sometimes we will do pattern work before terminating the flight. Once we are back in the squadron, we do a de-brief of what worked, what went wrong and what we did to rectify. And then we head back home.”
Maj. Wuerges explained the process in detail – “Yes, it is different. We receive the schedule from our scheduling shop a few weeks in advance. The part time crew members must consider their civilian schedule and attempt to accommodate the Guard schedule – in my example, I will bid for my civilian airline flying schedule first. If I am off during a particular week, then I will put my name on the list to support any Guard missions that week. Also, we must factor in our qualification requirements – we must be current in our qualifications and deployable at all times. Next, we must cover the Title 10 (24/7 Alert), TDYs, deployments, simulator training, and any other missions that our unit gets tasked with. We either bid for them in advance or work amongst ourselves to make sure all the taskings are filled. For example, I was supposed to fly one mission this week but now I am flying three – we are getting busier and busier. “
One can see the KC-135Rs are normally parked on the ramp in the open in an area which is referred to as “The Tanker Row”. There are a couple of maintenance hangars that the KC-135s use – for example one is a fuel-cell maintenance hangar and there is another one that is used for the maintenance of the aircraft itself. Apart from that, Eielson AFB has a huge hangar known as the Thunderdome that was constructed in the 1950s and still stands tall today. The Thunderdome houses the 353rd Combat Training Squadron (CTS) that does all the planning and logistics for the famous Red Flag Alaska exercises that are held at Eielson AFB. The KC-135s that sit the Alert mission sometimes utilize the Thunderdome where the KC-135s are kept warm and ready to go rather than expose them to the extreme temperatures and harsh elements, especially in the winter season.
Maj. Wuerges had high praise for the folks in the maintenance unit – “Our maintenance team is incredible and especially during the frigid winter months, their job becomes extremely challenging. We do have temperature and time thresholds – a temperature limit on when the folks can be out servicing the jet and for how long. They arrive 3-4 hours before crews show up to make sure the jet and the systems are ready to go. They make sure the heaters are going to warm up the jet, systems, and the cabin for the crew. Sorties have been rarely cancelled because of broken jets and even then, not because of lack of effort or expertise of our maintainers.” As a recognition of their work, the 168th Maintenance Group won the Maintenance Effectiveness Award for 2020 in the Small Aircraft Maintenance Unit Category, making it one of the Air Force’s top maintenance units.” To cast a spotlight on the age of the fleet, it is worth noting that the unit operates its oldest jet that was manufactured in 1959, while the newest jet rolled off the line in 1963.
The Mechanics of an Air Refueling (AR)
Giving details of how an AR works, SSgt. Winterton explained – “I will be sitting up front monitoring the AR primary frequency waiting for the receivers to check-in on the frequency. The check-in would be along these lines “Chena 31, Beast 11 through 14, 30 miles off your nose, request to rejoin.” So, at that point I know that the receivers are inbound and that is my cue. I will cross-check the call signs that we would be offloading gas to. I will proceed to the boom operator station, open up the boom pod, drop the boom down and get my checklist complete. Once that is done, I will take the radios from the pilots, and I assume responsibility for the AR and I like to think of it as orchestrating everything in the airspace around the KC-135. The receivers will come in and formate on the left wing of the jet, and I will clear them one by one on the boom, and as they get gas, I will clear them off, and they will form up on the right wing of the jet. I make a radio check so all communications are good and clear the first one on to the boom. The first one comes up and lines up at the stern position which is behind the jet at around 50 feet. I will ask the receiver pilot if they are checklist-complete and good to go. If they are good then I will give them a non-verbal cue for cleared to contact which is I will move the boom to left or right extending it 10 feet and then give them a forward light. There are four lights on the left-hand side of the boom pod that indicate to the pilots up, down, forward and back. I will turn on the lights which are momentary switches – i.e. as in the light lights up when I press down on the switch, and goes off when I release my finger off. I will give them constant forward light which tells them it is all right to come in near the boom. I give them a pace count to tell them how far they are from my jet – that goes like 50 feet, 40, 30, and 20.
Once they start getting near to the 10 feet position, I will fly the boom getting it aligned over the receptacle. I will start toggling the lights giving them flashes which lets them know to slow down or get them near to the contact position. I will extend the boom and make contact. After that just keep them on the boom and make sure they are stable with our jet. Typically, I will ask for the tail number and how much gas they are looking for and make sure it matches what we were fragged to offload. At that point if there are more fighters coming in then I talk to those pilots, I am communicating to the pilots in my jet out front, talking to the receiver on the boom and clearing them off once they are done. So, yeah there is a lot of multi-tasking that goes on. Once the whole AR is complete, the receivers back off and fly off the right wing of the jet and check-out on the AR frequency. Once they fly off to do their mission, I retract the boom back in its pod and that is it.”
Maj. Wuerges, giving us an insight into deployments, said “Because of the diverse missions that we perform, we do deploy not only throughout the Pacific region but also all around the globe. Deploying to Guam is a normal affair. Our unit maintains a continuous support at Andersen AFB for the Pacific theater. Previous deployments include Mildenhall in the UK, Geilenkirchen in Germany, and in Norway.” On one of the recent deployments to Norway, the 168th Wing provided tanker capability to the Norwegian F-35As during Exercise Cold Response, and deployment capabilities during Exercise Arctic Eagle, plus validated operational plans during Exercise Golden Raven. Telling us more about one of the challenging missions he flew, SSgt. Winterton reminisced – “There is one AR mission that stands out for me. You reflect back and realize that a KC-135 has a crew of two officers and an enlisted dude and sometimes that enlisted dude is going to be calling the shots. We were doing a Coronet mission – a mission where a group of fighters or bombers travel with the tanker across an ocean and top off multiple times to get to their destination. We had a bunch of B-1B Lancer bombers that required AR at night. I was a relatively new boom operator at the time. As we are ready to do AR, the bombers show up and it is pitch black outside over the ocean. There are certain lighting requirements I need to have to do AR. So, I turn on all the lights and I find that half the lights were burnt out. Well that was bad. I told the pilots up front about it and they told me it is my call since they could not know what I was seeing back here.
We needed to offload 110,000 lbs of gas into the bombers else they would have had to divert. According to the book it was legal for me to do AR with the lighting requirements but I needed to use extra caution. I could have totally cancelled this mission if I did not feel comfortable doing it. But I felt my training did put me in a good position to do it, so I went ahead with the AR. The B-1s are jet black in color and they are nose-receptacle aircraft. I saw his nose come in as the bomber approached, then I saw the receptacle so I made contact, kept it on the boom and refueled it successfully and safely. It was really challenging for me as a new boom having to make that call knowing that I have the power to scrub the mission. It was eye-opening to me and I realized how valuable one individual is to the success of a whole mission.”
Supporting F-35 standup
The 168th ARS has contributed significantly towards standing up the Lockheed Martin F-35s at Eielson. Giving more insight into what they were, Maj. Wuerges commented, “Since our unit supports the majority of air refueling operations in Alaskan airspace, we also played a part in standing up the F-35 squadrons at Eielson AFB. The initial phase was to test F-35s for cold weather operations. Once that phase was completed, we played an important part in training the F-35 pilots to get their receiver certifications to become mission ready. Once that phase was completed, the 168th Wing supported the ferry of the F-35s from Fort Worth to Eielson as well.
Block 45 mods
The KC-135Rs that are currently in service are scheduled to receive Block 45 cockpit flight deck and avionics upgrades as part of the KC-135 Global Air Traffic Management (GATM) program. Under this program, the KC-135 will get the latest advanced version of the auto-pilot, flight director, radar altimeter and electronic engine instrument displays. This upgrade ensures that the KC-135 meets existing and future Communications/Navigation/Surveillance and Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) requirements making it easier on the crew to operate in commercial airspace worldwide. In addition to the flight deck improvements, there are enhanced diagnostic capabilities that are included as part of the package. This helps maintenance in fixing the jets and increasing the FMC (Fully Mission Capable) rates of the platform. The Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing took its delivery of the upgraded KC-135R in October 2017. Rockwell Collins was awarded the Block 45 contract in September 2015, covering all the KC-135s in the Air Force inventory with a target completion date of 2024. The Air Force estimates with the Block 45 upgrades the jets will be operational until the year 2040, if not 2050. The US Air Force, Air Force Reserve, and Guard units operate almost 400 KC-135Rs today. Two decades of conflict after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has highlighted the importance of having an advanced and operational tanker fleet that provide the capability to deploy and extend the on-station time of offensive or deterrent assets at a moment’s notice.
Community outreach programs
Apart from providing air refueling throughout the Pacific and Arctic regions, the 168th Wing members undertake activities that contribute towards local community outreach programs. The personnel also undertook programs that led to preventing the spread of Covid-19 and helping with the local administration. Some of the airmen also volunteer as dive team members to rescue and recover sunk boats to protect the marine environment. They volunteer for Civil Air Patrol missions that save and assist people who are stranded in Alaska’s rugged landscape. Recently the 168th Wing has started to recognize the interior communities that support the men and women serving in the Wing, by dedicating each aircraft to them. The tail flash that used to read just “Alaska” in the past now boasts the name of the important towns/cities in and around Alaska. In addition to that, all the tails of the aircraft are painted with a polar bear standing strong at the base of the tail on each KC-135. The geometric appearance of the polar bear highlights the wing’s arctic spirit and culture of innovation.
For SSgt. Winterton, in the future he plans to complete his degree and get a commission to be a pilot – “I like to fly so it does not matter which type of pilot I become – be it fighters, transports, or helicopters. Personally, for me it will be very cool since I would have made the journey from being a maintainer, to an enlisted aircrew, to being an aircraft commander (AC) and be able to live each one of those roles. I really do enjoy my job as a boom operator now. If I do not get the commission, and crewed the rest of my life as a boom operator I would be very happy with that too.”
Maj. Wuerges hinting about the future said “Air refueling is a vital capability. Air refueling dictates how fast, what assets and where we can deploy. It extends our forces global reach capabilities. Alaska’s geographic position in the Northern Arctic and Pacific regions is strategically important. The KC-135 missions are not just about refueling, we execute a multitude of diverse taskings. With ever growing demand for future operations, the unit is set to expand going ahead with the active-duty Air Force associate unit. This will add 4 more KC-135s as well as almost 200 airmen to the unit by 2023. We are also looking at hiring more personnel needed in different roles within our unit. I foresee a lot of expansion for our local base to support the agile, qualified and worldwide deployable force. KC-135s will continue flying for many years to come and the Block 45 modification program certainly keeps them relevant for now. Maybe in the future 168th will get the KC-46 Pegasus as it matures in service, or entirely new tanker aircraft. As for me, I enjoy what I do and I want to keep doing it till I retire.”
I sincerely thank the 354th Wing Public Affairs, the 168th Wing Public Affairs and the crew of Chena 31 for their support and hospitality and feel fortunate to have known and flown the tanking mission with the crew.