Tech. Sgt. Dana Fernkas sees the mid-air refueling mission as similar to driving a car, except her KC-135 Stratotanker crew does it at 30,000 feet and with many more things to track. She often uses the comparison when asked about her job and mid-air refueling.
“The analogy I always use is between refueling and learning how to drive,” said Fernkas, a KC-135 boom operator with the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md. “The actual act of driving a car is pretty simple, but when you add in traffic, weather and all that stuff, suddenly it gets a lot more complicated. That’s kind of the way refueling is. There are so many variables that add to the adventure.”
A typical KC-135 mid-air refueling crew relies on teamwork to get the job done, with the boom operator serving as the eyes and ears for the pilot.
While the pilot keeps the aircraft steady, the boom operator is in the rear of the plane, communicating the position of the plane receiving the fuel. Boom operators also can help a stressed pilot of the receiver aircraft by calming them down and giving instructions over the radio.
The three-person KC-135 crew will perform between one and three refueling missions per week, depending on the local flying schedule, Fernkas said.
“When we’re in a combat scenario, we’re refueling multiple aircraft,” she said. “It also depends on the type of aircraft. If we’re refueling heavy aircraft like a B-1 (Spirit) that has a higher (fuel) load, then we obviously don’t have a lot of fuel to go around. But when we’re refueling the fighters, they take on significantly less fuel, so we can fuel between four to 10 different receivers on a combat mission.”
The refueling career field is considered under manned because of the number of pilots and crewmembers in training compared to those who are already fully qualified and working in the field, said Master Sgt. Paul Flipse, chief of public affairs for Air Force Reserve Recruiting Service at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
Mid-air refueling has become even more critical in the past decade because of the wars in Southwest Asia, Capt. Frank Gilliard IV, the pilot on Fernkas’ crew, said.
“The importance of mid-air refueling is when we talk about our competencies as an Air Force and as a warfighter, our tankers enable global reach,” Gilliard said. “There’s not a plane out there that can make it from the United States to where they need to go without the right number of refueling (missions with a tanker). So, if you put enough tankers in the air, you can essentially create an air bridge. Bombers can fly a mission from the Midwest, hit a tanker in Bangor, Maine, another tanker in England and maybe another one in Turkey, and the next thing you know, (they’re) in the (area of responsibility).”
Mid-air refueling is especially vital for missions in the AOR. Most of the squadron’s sorties begin at JB Andrews, but crews deploy about every 15 months to the AOR, Gilliard said.
“We maintain a readiness that allows us to respond and participate in unforeseen needs and conflicts requiring immediate attention,” he said.
Gilliard cited participation in the Libya conflict in 2011 as an example of the squadron’s ability to respond quickly. When needed, the 459th ARW also participates in humanitarian operations like those that followed the Haiti earthquake and Japan’s nuclear incident.
The crew usually knows the aircraft it will refuel days in advance and works out the final details the day before the mission, Gilliard said. When deployed, refueling crews must be especially prepared to respond quickly when airplanes need more gas.
“In a deployed location, flexibility is vital because the receiver aircraft’s requirements are usually sorted out the day before and based on the current theater’s requirements that can change up to the minute,” he said.
KC-135 crews learn their jobs in technical training in the In-Flight Refueling School at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. But they continually add to the training through on-the-job experience.
“The formal training we have all received standardized the tools needed to conduct mid-air refueling, but with time, experience and practice, those tools are sharpened, and your situational awareness grows to where you can sometimes identify potential problems before they mature,” Gilliard said.
The KC-135 and its crewmembers are often popular with recruits, family members and people who are just interested in airplanes.
“I think the biggest thing people get a kick out of is how close we get to the other aircraft when we’re refueling,” said Capt. Stephen Akins, another squadron KC-135 pilot . “People ask what kind of cargo we carry. Well, we don’t carry cargo. We carry gas, lots and lots of gas. They want to know what we do with that gas. We give it to airplanes so they can stay airborne. Most people I talk to who don’t know anything about the Air Force are completely in awe that we can do that.”
Perhaps that’s the reason Fernkas prefers to compare refueling with driving, a skill almost everyone can visualize and appreciate.
A 1st Fighter Wing’s F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. pulls into position to accept fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker with the 459th Air Refueling Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md. off the East Coast of the U.S. (U.S. Air Force video/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)