News: Mighty 97th tanker helps fuel mass F-16 exercise
Story by Airman 1st Class Kenneth Norman
LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. - A KC-135 Stratotanker aircrew hailing from Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, is overlooking deserts instead of cotton fields this week, as it refuels dozens of F-16 Fighting Falcons in support of a major exercise and training conducted by Luke AFB.
Crewed by pilot Maj. Denver Collins, co-pilot Capt. Ryan G. Smith and boom operator Staff Sgt. Eric Leclerc, all part of the 54th Air Refueling Squadron, the Altus aircraft refueled 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons Dec. 15.
"We are a mobile gas station," Collins said. "Our mission is customer service. We need to be where they need us, when they need us there."
Cactus Starfighter is a training exercise for F-16 pilots to practice engaging hostile aircraft and simulated real combat situations. More than 30 F-16s were launched from Luke AFB to conduct this training.
It is mission essential to have a tanker for refueling when there are so many F-16s trying to get off the ground and get to the fight, said Capt. Michael Fisher, 310th Fighter Squadron, Luke AFB mission commander during the exercise.
The KC-135 from Altus AFB was the only tanker in the exercise.
"Since both Altus AFB and Luke AFB are both part of Air Education and Training Command, Altus sends a KC-135 to Luke every six to eight weeks to keep the fighter pilots and students up to date on air refueling," Collins said. "Luke asked us to come conduct air refueling specifically for this exercise."
The KC-135 is used to fuel many different types of aircraft. F-16s have small fuel tanks and cannot fly for long periods of time without refueling.
"We get them to the fight," Smith said. "F-16s normally can't fly more than three hours without refueling."
When it comes to air refueling, the work is split 50-50 between the boom operator and the receiving pilot.
"Air refueling is one of the harder things we have to do," Fisher said. "It is like learning to drive on the freeway - once you do it a few times you become more comfortable with it."