By Louis A. Arana-Barradas, Air Force Print News
/ Published July 24, 2006
ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England (AFPN) -- The KC-135 Stratotanker crews at this base in the sedate English countryside are refueling aircraft that are helping get Americans out of Lebanon.
Transporting Americans from Lebanon is topping world headlines. But for the 100th Air Refueling Wing it is just its latest mission, wing commander Col. Mike Stough said.
Last week, the wing helped deploy to Cyprus some MH-53 Pave Low helicopters from the 352nd Special Operations Group, also located at this base 20 miles northeast of Cambridge.
"We helped the SOG get out of here," Colonel Stough said. "And we're flying refueling missions in support of humanitarian operations that are going on down there."
The new, and sudden, task is nothing new to the wing. Its 15 tankers -- the only ones permanently stationed in Europe -- already roam a vast region to provide their much sought-after air refueling services. Their turf stretches from the Arctic Circle to South Africa and from the west coast of Europe to the Middle East.
"We're all over the place," the colonel from Savannah, Ga., said.
With its aging fleet of tankers -- two are 1958 models -- the wing supports a host of customers. These include European Command, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO. And as during the start of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, wing tankers were the first to sustain the air bridge that took U.S. forces from the United States to the fight.
The demand for air refueling support keeps the wing busy and its aircrews sometimes fly up to 50 missions a week. But Colonel Stough, a veteran tanker pilot, said that is the nature of the tanker business, and one his troops have learned to contend with.
"Our job in life is to put the right jet, at the right place, at the right time with the right fuel load," he said. "For our receivers, whether they're fighters or cargo aircraft on humanitarian missions -- no matter whom they are -- we make sure they have fuel to get their mission done."
Doing that has taken a lot of flying in the past 12 months. The tanker jets with the "Box D" logo on their tails -- that denotes their World War II lineage -- have been busy.
"Normally, we have nine aircraft in the air a day. We fly five days a week -- and that doesn't count the weekends, which sometimes have a heavier tasking," said Chief Master Sgt. Brian Allison. The 100th Maintenance Group superintendent, he has worked with tankers for 29 years.
The chief said the wing flew more than 1,800 sorties since last July. On those flights, the tankers dispensed more than 43 million pounds of fuel -- or more than 6.45 million gallons.
"That's a lot of flying," the chief said. "And we've only had seven aircraft break down at other locations. That proves the KC-135 is still reliable."
But keeping the aircraft airborne gets tougher every day, the chief from Lockport, N.Y., said. He has seen the aircraft transform. Fitted with new engines in the late 1980s, the jet inherited double the thrust and longer range. It has digital instruments and a host of new avionics.
Almost a half century after entering service, the aircraft remains a solid and dependable airframe, he said. With a solid maintenance effort, Mildenhall tankers usually surpass the Air Force mission capable rate standard of 84 percent.
"To use a simple term, not raw numbers, I'd give our airframes a solid 'B' rating," Chief Allison said. "And if your do your math, for a 50-year-old aircraft, that's a pretty good average. We usually exceed the standard."
Colonel Stough takes the numbers a step further. The wing has its own rating for the readiness of its aircraft, what he calls the air refueling effectiveness rate. He said that measurement takes into account anything that can stop a mission -- even things the wing cannot control, like the weather.
"We don't discriminate about what the problem may be," the colonel said. What counts is whether "we have the airplane where it needs to be when it needs to be there for an air refueling to take place."
The colonel said the standard for this measurement of the jet's performance is high, 95 percent.
"We're at about a 97 percent rate," Colonel Stough said. "And we're doing that routinely."
Maintaining that rate means doing a lot of flying. And those missions -- on occasion -- also include transporting people and cargo. Wing tankers regularly fly such missions to help spell the heavily taxed C-130 Hercules transport flying out of Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
"If (Ramstein) gets busy with operations down in Africa, or they have other things going on, we step in and fly cargo and passengers to the Balkans," the colonel said.
The varied mission is one of the reasons Capt. Rob Kline loves flying the old tanker. The aircraft commander with the 351st Air Refueling Squadron decided two years ago to fly the jet. At Mildenhall, the wing not only has a good mission, but a key one, he said.
He said his job puts him close to the front lines and the action. And the tanker's mission is diverse, another plus in his book. Plus, the captain from Honey Brook, Pa., likes the fact the aircraft he has piloted for two years rarely strands him at some far-away base.
"Honestly, they're pretty reliable compared to some of our receivers," he said. "Our maintenance guys are pretty good at getting us off the ground."