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OEF missions 'challenging, fulfilling' for KC-135 crew

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (AFPN) -- A steady stream of warm sweat drips from Capt. Matt Bowers' face as he preflights the KC-135 Stratotanker for a mid-day mission that will take him to the skies over Afghanistan.

Temperatures in the sauna-like cockpit reach 130 degrees during the 90-minute process and won't cool off until the tanker is well into air.

"You never really get used to the heat here," said Bowers, an aircraft commander assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

The takeoff is extremely dangerous, Bowers said, because of scorching temperatures and an aircraft loaded with fuel.

He and copilot 1st Lt. Matt Ghormley are "all business" as they maneuver the lumbering, 46-year-old aircraft down the runway and into the air to support the war on terrorism.

Once airborne and the course plotted on the aircraft's navigational system, the mood lightens.

Bowers and Ghormley joke about graduating from the same high school in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a small town just outside of Knoxville. It is a common bond that has helped establish a great working relationship, they say.

"We catch a lot of flak about it, but I think it's pretty cool," said Ghormley, who graduated five years later than Bowers. The aircraft commander even played soccer with Ghormley's older brother.

The two met at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., several months ago during aircraft commander upgrade for Bowers, and initial pilot training for Ghormley. They were then assigned to McConnell AFB, Kan.

Neither had deployed in their current aircrew positions, and Bowers assured his hometown pal, "They'll never put a new aircraft commander and copilot on the same crew during a deployment."

Because of aircrew shortages, the two, along with boom operator Staff Sgt. Brett Prothe, make up a McConnell crew that has flown more than 20 combat sorties over Afghanistan since early June.

"We get along really well because our personalities click," Prothe said. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and feed off of them."

Bowers pressurizes the cabin at 8,000 feet and cool, fresh air replaces the thick air that has lingered throughout the aircraft for nearly two hours. "It should get more comfortable in here very soon," he said, and it does.

The 340th EARS has flown just over 1,000 combat sorties and delivered more than 50 million pounds of fuel to U.S. and coalition aircraft in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Today's "customer" is a KC-10 Extender from the 44th EARS, also from Al Udeid. Once refueled, Prothe said, the KC-10 will remain over Afghanistan for several more hours delivering fuel to aircraft supporting OEF.

A six-year Air Force veteran, Prothe stretches out in the boom pod at the back of the aircraft. He "pre-flies" the boom, ensuring it is operational and awaits the KC-10's arrival.

It is a job he said he loves, but he is not sure how much longer he will be doing it.

"I'm due to re-enlist when I get home, but since they've lifted Stop-Loss, I have a big decision to make," he said.

His goal is to complete his bachelor's degree and become an Air Force officer. The current operations tempo, he said, does not allow him to take college classes.

"I may have to get out for two years to finish my degree," he said.

As the KC-10 approaches within a half-mile, Prothe takes over radio contact from his aircraft commander. He coaches the modified DC-10 very slowly within refueling range ?- just 50 feet away.

Once boom contact is made and the fuel begins flowing, the Paola, Kan., native follows the movement of the steady KC-10 with the boom. Ten degrees in either direction and he is prepared to disconnect.

It takes just 15 minutes to transfer more than 60,000 pounds of fuel to the KC-10 before it breaks away to continue its mission.

"Flying missions into Afghanistan have been the most challenging and fulfilling for me," said Bowers, who has been was away from home for more than 200 days the past year. "I've been extremely impressed with what we've been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time."

On the return flight to Al Udeid, the crew reminisces about responding to a recent alert and past missions to while away the time on the leg home. Soon they reluctantly begin the descent back to the desert temperatures and hazy skies.