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Schoolhouse trains tanker instructor pilots to be weapons officers

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Captains Jay Butterfield and Jeff Paget (left and far left), and 509th Weapons Squadron cadre, review a KC-135 Stratotanker's maintenance records with a crew chief from the 92nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The captains are KC-135 Weapons Instructor Course students at the squadron here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Shadi May)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Captains Jay Butterfield and Jeff Paget (left and far left), and 509th Weapons Squadron cadre, review a KC-135 Stratotanker's maintenance records with a crew chief from the 92nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The captains are KC-135 Weapons Instructor Course students at the squadron here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Shadi May)

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFPN) -- Some Airmen here are helping produce experts in Air Force tanker operations.

Members of the 509th Weapons Squadron do that by conducting the KC-135 Weapons Instructor Course and running the tanker intelligence formal training unit here.

The squadron is one of three that make up the U.S. Air Mobility Weapons School, which is at the Air Mobility Warfare Center at Fort Dix, N.J. The purpose of weapons instructor course is to teach students how to employ the tanker effectively at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.

“This course is like earning a Ph.D. in tanker employment,” said Lt. Col. Seth Beaubien, the squadron commander. “From tactical threat reactions to bed down basing to deliberate and crisis action planning involving tanker assets, our students learn to integrate the tanker weapon system into joint and coalition operations at all levels of warfare.”

The training takes five and a half months and includes 515 academic hours, 22 sorties and 80 flying hours. It is divided into five phases: mission employment, composite force operations, combined operations, advanced instruction and advanced tanker maneuvering.

“There is a lot of information out there that the average tanker pilot doesn’t necessarily take into account,” said Capt. Jay Butterfield, a student from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. “I took the course because I wanted to challenge myself a bit -- to see what I was made of.

The captain said, “Learning to be perfect is the goal. I have learned to brief and communicate at a much higher level than before attending the course.”

The training is fast-paced and often means working long days.

“The training is a marathon,” said Capt. Chris Amrhein, a student from Fairchild. “Everything we do is challenging as you have to constantly analyze how the end game is going to turn out, so over the course of the six months, it can eventually wear you down to constantly push at 110 percent.

Captain Amrhein said, “Those instructor pilots who consider attending the course should be ready to face the challenge.”

But both captains agree that the end result, earning the weapons officer patch, makes the hard work worthwhile.

“How much you learn and grow while in the middle of the class projects makes you tell yourself, ‘man, I can handle several challenges at the same time,’” Captain Amrhein said. “Everything we do at the WIC is about precise execution -– from the maneuvers we fly to the ground events, the goal is perfection.

“When you go back to your unit, you are the expert,” he said. “You may not know all the answers, but you know where to find them.”

Students aren’t the only ones who have this sense of fulfillment. The instructors feel a great sense of accomplishment watching students grasp the knowledge and use their expertise.

“Seeing students do well and understand how the 135 employs is rewarding,” said instructor Maj. Jeremy Thiel. “Our challenge is the amount of information to teach in a short time.”

The major said the course pushes instructor pilots past limits they thought impossible.

“Seeing the light bulb come on when they finally understand is really rewarding because you are not just flying a tanker any more,” Major Thiel said. “You are helping make an entire fleet more effective.”

The instructor’s goal is teaching students to employ the tanker to its fullest capabilities.

“The WIC produces officers who are capable of planning and executing all air refueling doctrinal missions, filling a critical need,” said Maj. Howard McArthur, the squadron operations officer.

When they finish training, weapons officers can assist commanders in meeting theater objectives and train other pilots with many essential skills. Those include advanced tanker maneuvering, command and control, advocacy and critical thought.

The course is a part of Air Mobility Command’s Phoenix Horizon -— a program to offer young officers larger challenges and groom them for future leadership positions.

Since its conception in 2000, the school has graduated 70 weapons officers. Four of the students were chosen to be operations officers, three have become squadron commanders and one was promoted to colonel.

Course graduates have been very competitive for developmental educational opportunities and have been assigned to key joint and air staff billets around the world, squadron officials said.

The squadron molds future tanker leaders, they said.

The school is typically geared for KC-135 instructor pilots, usually captains with a maximum nine years in service. Students require a minimum of 50 KC-135 Stratotanker instructor hours and Pacer CRAG Block 40 qualification. This is knowledge of the aircraft’s modern cockpit to include digitalized instrumentation and compass radar and global positioning system.

For more information, candidates should visit www.amc.af.mil/do/dok/dok.htm

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