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KC-135 Stratotankers keep allied forces flying

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (AFPN) -- As the Air Force's operating tempo climbs to unprecedented heights in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the efforts of refueling tankers are keeping the air war on track.

With the average daily number of air sorties going from 1,000 to 1,800 in the past two days, according to a defense official, one squadron is providing round-the-clock fuel support for many of the record number of allied aircraft.

Lt. Col. James Vechery, commander of the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at a forward-deployed location, said his unit had flown 116 sorties and refueled 491 allied aircraft in the first six days of the operation.

"At least a third to a half of our aircraft are in the air at any given time, and as the operation tempo increases, so will the number of sorties we fly," said Vechery. "We are a force extender. By bringing fuel to the fight, we are allowing other planes with more extensive combat power to complete their missions.

With a fuel storage capability of 83,000 pounds, the squadron's KC-135 Stratotanke are providing support for the full spectrum of allied aircraft, from F-15E Strike Eagles to British GR4 Tornados.

Operating as a "gas station in the sky," a Stratotanker is typically flying a four to six hour mission, and refuels an average of six coalition aircraft per sortie, said Maj. Greg West, a KC-135 pilot.

"We have a pre-determined air space that we fly to, and from that point on, everything is synchronized by air traffic controllers on the ground, as well as the pilots coming in for fuel," said West. "It's a big operation, and it takes a lot of coordination to make things work, but after some initial growing pains, everything seems to be running smoothly."

The large scale operation, however, has forced both pilots and those supplying the fuel to adapt to situations seldom seen in a training environment.

Staff Sgt. Matt York, a boom operator in charge of prioritizing and refueling the aircraft that approach his KC-135, said that being flexible has been a key to the success of the missions.

"I've had instances where I have a set order for the planes I'll be refueling, but at the last minute an aircraft will fly up and need fuel almost immediately. When that happens, the plan has to be adjusted so that the plane running on empty gets the fuel it needs," said York.

"This is also the first time a lot of these fighter pilots have had to refuel under these conditions, and they've also had to adjust," he said. "Normally, there is a lot of space between aircraft waiting to refuel, but I've had instances where the planes were in a wing-tip to wing-tip formation, just because there is such a sense of urgency in getting to where they need to be."

And while that sense of urgency has created an operating tempo that most of the KC-135 pilots, crews and maintainers have never seen, their commander said the unit's morale has never been higher.

"There was a time when all of the uncertainty took its toll, but now that the operation has begun, you can really see the fire in these airmen's eyes," said Vechery. "They know that their job is important to the overall success of the mission, and that they are now taking care of business."

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