AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar -- NASCAR is a sport where a few seconds could mean the difference between celebrating a victory or going home disappointed. The crew works as fast as possible to change the tires and refuel the vehicle to keep it out of the pit, and get it back on the track.
Much like NASCAR's need for less time, aircraft depend on time to keep watch over forces on the ground and transport wounded warriors who need immediate care. And like the race engines on the vehicles, aircraft need fuel to keep them going. But the biggest difference between the two getting fuel is vehicles fill up while idle and aircraft have the capability to refuel in flight.
Although aerial refueling began in the 1920's, the Airmen of today have perfected the exchange of fuel while 25,000 feet in the air. Airmen from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, make up the U.S. Air Forces Central Command's area of responsibility main refueling squadron which supports the aircraft of Operation Enduring Freedom.
With reliance on the KC-135 Stratotanker to refuel aircraft throughout the AOR, more than 180 Active Duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Airmen make up the 340th EARS.
"The airmen who make up the squadron, who come from bases all over the world, perform an excellent job, supporting coalition and U.S. forces for Operation Enduring Freedom while also supporting required training missions in the AOR for combat operations," said, Lt. Col. Donavan Kanak, 340th EARS director of operations who hails from Victoria, Texas, and is deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.
Aerial refueling extends the capabilities of any aircraft by expanding the range, limited only by crew fatigue and fuel consumption of the aircraft.
Capt. James Knotts, a 340th EARS pilot who hails from Orlando, Fla. and is deployed from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., said, "In today's fight, when our fighter jets and our bombers need to keep watch over our ground forces to keep them safe, aerial refueling is a necessity to keep the aircraft in the air for a longer period of time. A fighter jet taking off in Afghanistan during the summertime has a 45 minute endurance because of heat and weight. We have the capability to keep providing fuel to the jet indefinitely until they need to land for servicing or crew rest."
Aircrews from the 340th EARS fly more than 30 percent of AFCENT's air tasking order sorties and the high operations tempo is one of the hardest parts of the job said, Knotts. Once they are in the air and performing the refueling, Knotts said, the hard job is done by the receiving pilot and the boom operator. A boom is a rigid movable tube which sends fuel to the receiving aircraft.
Master Sgt. Jorge Brewer, a 340th EARS boom operator who hails from Raleigh, N.C. and is deployed from Seymour Johnson AFB said, "Weather can have a huge impact when trying to connect the boom to the receiving aircraft, but once you have been doing the job for a while, it becomes second nature. It takes good coordination and communication from the boom operator and the receiving pilot to have a smooth exchange."
Brewer's favorite part of the job is providing fuel to an aircraft during an aeromedical evacuation mission.
"During an aeromedical evacuation mission, the goal is to get the wounded to the appropriate care center as quickly as possible," Brewer said. "By providing an aeromedical evacuation aircraft with fuel, we have a direct impact in getting the wounded taken care of as soon as possible. It's a humbling experience."
Although the Airmen who make up the 340th EARS come from all over the globe, the unit's teamwork, camaraderie and sense of putting the mission first is through the roof, Kanak said.
"Aviators from all over come together to do excellent work out here," Kanak said. "It's amazing to see the effects of standardized training and how everyone can come together with that background of training and operate at a very rapid operations tempo while safely executing the mission. The diversity of those we see come here and do such great work together with a common purpose is an awesome experience."