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168 Air Refuelling Squadron, Alaska ANG
Latest update: 2004
"Booming business": 168 ARS Alaska ANG boom operations
The 168 Air Refuelling Squadron (ARS) activated on October 25, 1986 is based at Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) in Alaska. It’s the only Air Refuelling Wing (ARW) based in the arctic region. The wing mission is to train and equip KC-135R crews to provide air refuelling (AAR) in support of Pacific Air Command (PACAF). To fulfil its mission the squadron has nine KC-135R Stratotankers on strength. Many of its personnel are active duty in order to meet the operational requirements. Since it is in the Air National Guard (ANG) the unit is an asset of the Governor of Alaska; as such the Governor can direct the squadron to respond to emergencies declared within the State. Master Sergeant (MSgt) Steven Forgue and Senior Airman (SrA) Brian Brinkley tell about KC-135 boom operations in Alaska.

Air Tasking Orders

The tanker airlift control centre (TACC) which is headquartered at Scott AFB Illinois directs the air tasking orders for the squadron. The TACC controls the daily United States Air Force (USAF) airlift requirements including air to air refuelling from KC-135 and KC-10 assets. ‘With few exceptions they are usually the ones tasking the squadron’. The TACC sent a message to the squadron asking if they can support for instance the support of a C-17 Globemaster from Washington to the Far East. The squadron has is own scheduling shop which plans all missions and replies back to the TACC. The mission is than assigned. The squadron also supports missions of the Elmendorf AFB based 3 Wing and Eielson AFB based 354 Wing. Whenever they need tanker support they will call the scheduling shop mostly a quarter prior to the mission to be flown. A month prior the mission is co-ordinated making sure the training requirements for both squadrons are settled. MSgt Forgue explains it works two ways because the squadron pilots and boomers also need training. The only difference is that the fighter crew have more training requirements because they have to do the air to air and air to ground job and the AAR only forms a small part of their business.

When the squadron is flying a local mission the scheduling shop prepares the mission and provides the crew with information about the receivers, the assigned tanker track, the altitude where AAR takes place and so on. ‘It basically means we are flying the aircraft to the rendezvous point. AAR is undertaken at 24.000 feet when the receivers are F-15 Eagle or F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, the A-10 Warthogs are refuelled at a lower altitude because the are more power limited’. In order to refuel a certain amount of horizontal and vertical visibility are needed. Depending on the actual weather the refuelling altitude can be changed depending on the receiving aircraft type. The crew can also look for clear spots in the assigned track and refuel there. When the weather is really bad the refuelling is cancelled

Boom Operations

Before being assigned to a squadron the boom operators spend their time with the 97 Air Mobility Wing (AMW) based at Altus AFB, Oklahoma. The wing which falls under Air Education & Training Command (AETC) is responsible for the training of the airlift and tanker pilots, and KC-135 and KC-10 boom operators. The school utilises a simulator which in fact is not much more than a big box identical to the boom pod with a computer screen. When completing the course the junior boomers are assigned to active, ANG, or Reserve squadrons. Each new boomer will have an instructor assigned to him or her. The 168 ARS has about 20 boom operators, of which seven are instructor. ‘They are qualified to go up with somebody brand new out of school and teach them everything they didn’t learn at school. At school it’s mainly the heavies like the C-130s and the AWACS. So when they come here they have to do F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. Daytime missions are conducted before they can start the nighttime ones. ‘So they will be with an instructor for about 120 days’. Because the squadron participated in exercise Cooperative Cope Thunder 2004, held between July 15-30, more missions than usual were flown
. ‘Normally you fly at least once a week, to make sure everyone stays proficient, but right now you’re flying twice or three times’. A lot of these missions were allocated to the junior boomers.
Alaska differs from other States because of its geographical location. During summertime it hardly gets dark while during wintertime it’s the other way around with about six hours of daylight. This has an effect on the junior boomers and the crews joining in spring or summer will have an instructor assigned longer because they can’t fly nighttime missions.

Air refuelling procedures:

The KC-135 is fitted with the boom system. In case US Navy or Marine aircraft have to be refuelled the boom is augmented with a hose system, also called the basket. It takes about two hours to convert a KC-135. The tanker will also be equipped with the basket when coalition or other friendly forces aircraft have to be refuelled and require this configuration (for instance Royal Air Force aircraft, like the Tornado or Jaguar). MSgt Forgue and SrA Brinkley explain the AAR refuelling procedures.

‘Both the tanker crew and the receivers are briefed on the refuelling track and the altitude where AAR will be conducted. The KC-135 will take-off from the airfield and fly directly to this track. The receivers will use their radars to locate the tanker and then will fly to it. Radio contact between the aircraft is established at least 15 minutes before refuelling. ‘The KC-135 has a couple of radios, the fighters usually have one, so they’re changing frequencies and we can talk to them on two different ones. The tanker pilots are talking to them all the time and from about half a mile the boom operator starts talking to them. There is a requirement to get a radio check, you’re not supposed to refuel somebody before you get a communications capability between the tanker and the receiver’. The amount of fuel to be transferred to a receiver is pre-briefed and is standard, for fighters it’s 2000 pounds. ‘When we get up there and they want more fuel they request what we call a top off which is basically fill them up’. If we have plenty of fuel we can usually accommodate the request. When a formation has to be refuelled the flight leader will refuel first with its wingman positioning on our left wing. When the leader has completed refuelling he will take position on our right wing with the wingman flying into position to get his gas. When the boom is clear the pilots decide themselves to get into position or ask the boom operator to give the call. Most of the time when visibility allows they will go down there themselves. When they’re all done they will clear off either high or low depending on how they have to continue their mission. Most important is they are deconflicted with other aircraft being out there. The KC-135 stays in the area when more receivers are coming or leave when we have completed the AAR.

When a receiver approaches the KC-135 to refuel the pilot has to look at the belly of the tanker. ‘Underneath the nose behind the landing gear in front of the wing there are two long, skinny rows of PDI (Pilot Director Indicator) lights; one says D/U (down or up) and the other one says F/A (forward or aft) and based on where the boom is and the nozzle is, the receiver pilot would see illuminated lights and arrows and know that he must come forward or backward and then up or down to remain within the refueling envelope. There is a big orange/yellow stripe right on the centre line of the tanker so he can see where he is latterly, but when he is coming in to initially get the contact the boom operator is back there coaching him into position where contact can be made. There are a couple of switches back there on the boom operator's control panel. He’s basically telling him to come forward. At first, the boom operator gives the receiver a steady light, indicating a large correction forward. When the receiver is within approximately 10 feet of the refueling nozzle, the boom operator will flash the Forward light, indicating a small correction is needed. When the receiver's refueling receptacle is in the refueling envelope, the boom operator will stop with the lights and extend the nozzle into the receptacle. Then the automatic system of the tanker takes over and the boom operator no longer has to move those lights. And then those lights are slaved to where the boom actually is and that will tell him he needs to get up or down or in or out’. Brian explains: ‘They are basically trained to watch the lights not the boom because if they try to make contact with the boom they're just gonna mess us up. So they're just trying to watch the lights and then we do our thing’.

The role of the boom operator is different when conducting AAR for aircraft requiring the drogue and hose (basket) system. There is not a lot of involvement from the boomer. The vast majority is that the receiver pilot puts himself into position behind the basket and plugs himself in. When he has made contact we’ll turn on the pumps. For a receptacle and nozzle type of receiver they get to an area that’s close and then the boom operator flies that boom around and makes that contact. Because there is al lot more involvement with the receptacle and nozzle refuelling most of our training goes toward that kind of refuelling. The KC-135 is equipped with a short hose compared to what they are used to on their own tankers or a KC-10. They’re just what they call a soft hose and a soft basket, we’ve got a fairly short rigid hose and if those guys get the probe into the drogue and they start moving around a lot they could rapidly exceed the limitation of that hose and how much you can move laterally. They can tear of that hose, tear off the basket or damage their probe. It happens not a lot but it does happen. In that case refuelling is immediately terminated. Depending on how much damage was done to the boom or to the plane an emergency is declared. Whenever this is the case the aircraft will land at the most suitable airfield in the vicinity, otherwise it will return to it’s homebase or forward operating location.

The author wishes to thank the 168 ARS PAO, MSgt Steven Forgue and SrA Brian Brinkley in assisting with writing this article. The author also wishes to thank the other members of the 168 ARS for their hospitality during the visit.
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M. Jaarsma - Phantomaviation.nl