News: Providing airpower from 24,000 feet
Story by Staff Sgt. Travis Edwards
TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan - Agile and strategic airpower comes in many forms. From an F-16 Fighting Falcon zooming over troops in contact in Afghanistan to provide a show of force or the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft providing real-time aerial imagery, they all play a part in giving commanders and allied forces on the ground the tools necessary to complete a mission.
In order to keep U.S. and NATO aircraft in the air and ready to support ground movement at a moment's notice, airmen from the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron help deliver fuel via a 30,000-gallon fuel station in the sky, the KC-135 Stratotanker.
"There's always someone who needs gas at some point," said Airman 1st Class Darhon Hambrick, 22nd EARS in-flight refueling specialist. "Every one of my 16 flights here has had at least one aircraft to refuel."
As the only in-flight refueling specialist, or boom operator, on board during an air refueling flight, Hambrick and the other booms here are responsible for safely refueling other aircraft. They pump aircraft their gas by ways of a long, extendable, hydraulic-controlled metal tube that connects the two aircraft to transfer fuel. The boom lies in the prone position to control the arm of the fuel delivery to ensure a good connection to the receiving aircraft.
"Sometimes there is only one receiver [aircraft needing refueled], but I've fueled as many as eight fighters. It all depends on the day and the missions [in Afghanistan]," said Hambrick, who is deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. "It's all about keeping aircraft in the air and enabling them to do their job."
Aircraft like the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-16, F-15 Eagle, E-3 Sentry (Airborne Warning and Control System) or any of our allied-nation jets like the Royal Air Force GR-4 Tornado work together to provide support necessary help provide dominance in the air and on the ground.
But, before the KC-135 can depart and distribute fuel, a team of three or four airmen must get the jet ready to go. The crew prepares the aircraft for flight at times when most people are sleeping; together, the boom operator, pilot and copilot ride toward the 50-year old aircraft to start preflight checks.
Throughout its tenure in the Air Force, the KC-135 has undergone one major engine-modification upgrade to enhance the reliability of the aircraft and various other communications and navigation upgrades to meet air traffic control needs.
Once airborne, the crew flies to their predetermined air refueling route in Afghanistan to await aircraft needing fuel.
One mission aircraft that receives fuel in flight is the AWACS, or E-3 Sentry. AWACS is an integrated command and control battle management, surveillance, target detection, and tracking aircraft platform used to provide an accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to commanders and troops on the ground.
"AWACS assigns the airspace and altitude for us during refueling missions; it helps to keep us from other aircraft that may be in the area, ensuring the safety of air traffic," said Maj. Tony Amoroso, 22nd EARS pilot, who is deployed from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and a native of Chicago. "They also inform us when there are any changes to time receivers need to refuel depending on the mission they are on and when the jets get close enough, they transfer them to our unique frequency."
AWACS also works with Pyramid Control, a 24/7 battlespace command and control center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, that acts as the senior tactical battle management element for Afghanistan. They provide operators real-time information from data link, sensors and radio systems around the area of responsibility, giving allied members situational awareness of the entire region.
"If AWACs is not up, continuity is lost between troops on ground and the other C2 agencies," said Hambrick, a native of Nashville, Tenn., with more than 60 AR flights under his belt. "We need the [AWACS] in the air to ensure the mission works and the support is where it needs to be when it needs to be there.
Without them, the [battlespace picture] won't be as up to date at it needs to be."
He added that those controlling agencies help evenly distribute the receivers amidst the various tankers in the sky.
With all the coordination going on, Hambrick said his biggest challenge is battling the elements and being able to see out of his window, a small three by three-foot piece of glass that allows him or other booms to have eyes on receiving aircraft.
"If it is cold outside, the jet has to be covered in deicing fluid to ensure the aircraft doesn't freeze up, which could cause the aircraft to crash," he said. "However, that fluid can get on my window - visibility can be terrible - so we adapt and continue to complete the mission.
"But, you know where the line is drawn for safety purposes, safety is paramount. I can't put people or aircraft in danger if I feel like I can't safely accomplish my mission," said the airman. "Despite how bad the window has been, I've still been able to get them their gas. We have to use what's available."
The boom lies in position and checks his instruments; he's ready. He says to himself quietly, "check ... check ... check," -- everything works. The aircraft comes in and the sun is coming in from the southwest, the light is bright; but it doesn't faze the boom; he's prepared. The jet gets fuel and continues its mission while the KC-135 and its crew fly in wait for their next receiver.
Date Posted:01.26.2014 23:00
Location:TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, KG
Hometown:CHICAGO, IL, US
Hometown:FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, WA, US
Hometown:MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, FL, US
Hometown:NASHVILLE, TN, US