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908th EARS refuels aircraft in fight

SOUTHWEST ASIA - An A-10 Warthog pulls up behind a KC-10 Extender to be refueled Sept. 18, 2012. The KC-10 is an advanced tanker and cargo aircraft designed to provide increased global mobility for U.S. armed forces. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

An A-10 Thunderbolt II pulls up behind a KC-10 Extender to be refueled Sept. 18, 2012. The KC-10 is an advanced tanker and cargo aircraft designed to provide increased global mobility for U.S. armed forces. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

SOUTHWEST ASIA - U.S. Air Force Capt. Vincent Wright, aircraft commander, left, and 1st Lt. Kurt Rommel, co-pilot, right, fly a KC-10 Extender during refueling operations Sept. 18, 2012. Wright and Rommel are deployed to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing as part of the 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

Capt. Vincent Wright, aircraft commander, left, and 1st Lt. Kurt Rommel, co-pilot, right, fly a KC-10 Extender during refueling operations Sept. 18, 2012. Wright and Rommel are deployed to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing as part of the 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

SOUTHWEST ASIA - U.S. Air Force Capt. Vincent Wright, 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron aircraft commander, completes pre-flight paperwork before his mission Sept. 18, 2012. Wright pilots KC-10 Extenders for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

Capt. Vincent Wright, 908th Expeditionary Aerial Refueling Squadron aircraft commander, completes pre-flight paperwork before his mission Sept. 18, 2012. Wright pilots KC-10 Extenders for the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Scott MacKay)

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- It's 4:30 a.m., and four Airmen have already had breakfast and a pre-flight briefing as they leave their squadron. They grab water and more food before heading to their aircraft.

Music and friendly banter wafts within the cockpit as the crew performs pre-flight checks with their ground crew.

But before takeoff, the music and conversation stops as the four strap in and the pilot commands the KC-10 Extender off the flightline and barreling down the runway to begin their mission of refueling flying aircraft over Southwest Asia.

At the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, this job is the responsibility of the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron.

"The 908th's mission here is to provide maximum fuel to the fight so aircraft flying around supporting operations in (the U.S.) Central Command (area of operations) can stay aloft longer and meet all the taskings they need to support troops on the ground or other airborne assets in the area," said Lt. Col. David LeRoy, 908th EARS commander.

The squadron accomplishes its responsibilities with the KC-10 Extender, an advanced tanker and cargo aircraft designed to provide increased global mobility for U.S. armed forces.

To perform its primary mission of aerial refueling, the KC-10 uses two types of delivery methods -- a boom and a drogue. The boom is like a retractable metal pipe, which a boom operator maneuvers into a receiving aircraft's fuel receptacle. The drogue is a hose with a basket on the end, which receiving aircraft direct a probe into to receive fuel.

"The boom provides capability for Air Force aircraft; the drogue provides capability for both Navy and all the coalition fighters supporting the operation," said LeRoy, a San Bernardino, Calif., native deployed from Travis Air Force Base, Calif. "We offload the gas through those two different mechanisms ... just like pulling up to the gas pump."

In addition to the boom operator, each mission includes a pilot, also called the aircraft commander, co-pilot and flight engineer.

The crew members of this mission are deployed together from Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, N.J. While deployed here, the four fly every mission together as one crew.

"There's hardly a waking moment I'm not with one of the three," said Staff Sgt. Sean Killian, the flight engineer. "It's a blessing and a curse," he said, smiling.

Good-natured ribbing aside, working together is what Killian said he enjoys best about his job.

"We work together as a team for one goal," said Killian, a Lakewood, Colo., native. "It's the camaraderie that I like the best. We've got four guys who come out here in the span of eight weeks together, or 10 weeks ... you foster some really cool relationships."

Fostering their relationships also helps the crew communicate better, which is vital to performing the mission.

Crew resource management, which means using available resources and each crew member's knowledge, is basically good communication in the flying world, said Senior Airman Christopher Foley, boom operator.

"CRM is a big thing, making sure you coordinate with each other, making sure everybody knows what everybody is doing, backing each other up," said Foley, a Princeton, N.J., native. "During (aerial refueling) I'm all the way in the back and (the other crew members) have no idea what I'm doing, so it's very important that I stay vocal, let them know what the receiver is doing, what I'm doing, who's going where."

Their flight out to the refueling point feels like a short road trip, which even includes traveling along a strip they call the "highway."

Once they arrived, the crew soon learned that most, if not all, of its receivers on the schedule were supporting troops in contact.

"I just dropped a few bombs and I've got to get back," one receiving pilot said, and the KC-10 team cheered.

LeRoy said he tells his Airmen he guarantees situations like this will happen.

"I guarantee that on at least one of their missions ... they give off gas to an aircraft that supports people on the ground by either dropping bombs or a show of force and it saves somebody's life on the ground," the commander said. "Then it makes everything worth it."

These experiences are what 1st Lt. Andrew Veerathanongdech, co-pilot, enjoys most.

"I believe experiences mold a person a lot," said Veerathanongdech, a Fairfax, Calif., native. "The experiences that I get in this job, from being deployed, to traveling, to meeting all these people, is something that you will not get anywhere else."

Capt. Gabriel Miller, pilot, recalled one of his most memorable experiences.

"We were over (a country) and there was an Italian fighter pilot," said Miller, a Sparta, N.J., native. "Something happened with one of his internal gas tanks and he couldn't get to the gas.

"He was real low on gas, and due to the weather he couldn't find his tanker. He basically said, 'If I can't get gas and find a tanker in the next five minutes, I'm going to eject over the Mediterranean Sea.'"

Miller said he could hear the nervousness and fear in the pilot's voice get worse as he found the tanker, which then suffered a problem.

"But the guys on the crew figured out a way to fix the problem, they gave (the pilot) the gas that he needed, and his mood changed drastically from five minutes prior to five minutes after he got the fuel," Miller said. "I've never heard someone so emotionally upset on the radio."

LeRoy said he's amazed at what his Airmen do every day.

"My Airmen are doing awesome," he said. "The flexibility, the ingenuity, the can-do attitude they have -- they make it happen every day. They do the mission, they know what they're supposed to be doing and it just amazes me on a day to day basis."

LeRoy said he's also amazed by the aircraft maintainers, intelligence Airmen, squadron aviation resource managers and others, whose do their job flawlessly and most without any days off.

"I've been here for almost four months and the people in this squadron, they just don't complain," he said. "They just do the job and move on."

The commander also added none of them could do their mission without base support.

"The support we get on the base is phenomenal, from everybody from the mission support group, the maintenance group, the medical group -- they're all here to help and we appreciate that as well," he said. "We wouldn't be able to do the mission without them and we are cognizant of that."

On this mission, the crew offloaded more than 67,000 pounds of fuel to eight receivers.
Killian put the fuel weight into perspective.

"That's about 10,000 gallons of fuel," he said. "If you had a vehicle with a 20-gallon tank and filled it once a week, it would take about nine years to go through that much gas."

The crew accomplished this offload in less than five hours.

The receivers refueled and the team's mission complete, they once again turned up the music and conversation, and began their "road trip" back to the wing.