The Long Arm that Leads the Fist
Following my recent experience with the US Air Force I was invited back for the opportunity to fly on the next aircraft that may enter the Israeli Air Force pending Pentagon approval.
The aircraft, the venerable KC -135R, is the backbone of the U.S. Air Force’s refueling fleet. The KC-135R is based on the Boeing 707 airliner, the aircraft which was first flown in 1954 and retired from commercial service at least 25 years ago from most respectable airlines.
The KC-135R, the 707’s military version, has been the backbone of the U.S. Strategic Command since it first entered service in 1957. The aircraft has been significantly modified since then, but the basic airframe has remained the same.
USAF's KC-135R aircraft are stationed around the World and provide the U.S. Armed Forces with the ability to refuel midair - a crucial operational advantage over hostile territory which today is taken for granted.
My interest was piqued due to the U.S. Administration’s promise of supplying these aircraft to Israel, which has an ageing fleet of tankers based on an aircraft which was initially not meant for this purpose.
Israel operates the commercial Boeing 707 since the 1970s; in 1983 it converted its first 707 into a tanker platform as part of preparations for the strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. For Israel, finding suitable 707s for the task has not been easy, and converting them into a tanker platform again carries a set of burdens that are technically difficult to overcome. The system for refueling is produced by Israel Aircraft Industries while the physical probe used to offload the fuel in midair is identical to that of the KC-135.
Our visit to see the refueling process in action is conducted at the 100th Air Refueling Squadron, which belongs to U.S. Air Forces in Europe. This squadron has an extremely long and illustrious career; the 100th Air Refueling Wing actually started out as the 100th Bomber Wing flying B-17 Flying Fortresses during World War Two. First established in 1942, in 1943 it commenced bombing missions over Axis-controlled territory.
Today the squadron’s history is preserved on its vertical fin where on all KC- 135s belonging to the Squadron there is a large letter “D” painted as a tribute to its heritage. The 100th is the only squadron in the U.S. Air Force which is permitted to fly with this type of World War II insignia which makes it unique. The Squadron, located in RAF Mildenhall provides close support to all U.S. operations within the European theatre as well as support missions for NATO aircraft as well.
The close ties between the U.S. Armed Forces and its European counterparts are evident from our designated mission – the refueling of 21 Royal Danish AF F-16 Fighters.
The capacity and capability of the aircraft is very impressive. The quantity of fuel it carries alone provides any air force with this type of capability the option of being able to deliver a strategic package to a much wider range of targets, as well as enabling the fighters involved to effectively protect themselves and others for a much longer period of time.
The possibility of Israel getting even a small number of these aircraft in addition to the ones that already exist would be a significant force multiplier in the region.
We attended a pre-flight briefing for the mission at hand in the 100th’s briefing room. Attending are two veteran Israeli pilots who look like they just graduated college - but from my experience with the IAF I know looks can be deceiving.
Along with them are three USAP pilots: Captain Mark Watson is the Mission Commander flying in the left seat and has among other duties the job of being an instructor pilot; his co-pilot Captain John Lachiewitz; and completing the crew is Master Sgt. Michael Ingram, a veteran “boomer” and the crew chief who is in charge of the most complex part of the mission – refueling the fighters rendezvousing with us.
Incidentally, Master Sgt. Ingram is also the Wing’s safety officer; experts on safety are good to have on board when two aircraft plan on coming within such close proximity of each other in midair!
The crew recognizes the historical significance of the squadron. Even though they aren’t doing the bombing runs themselves anymore, they know that without their capability the fighters will have less time over a target zone to make sure everything goes to plan.
We take off with close to 150,000 lbs. of fuel loaded on board meant for offloading to the Royal Danish Air Force, which is participating in NATO training.
Cooperation is something the 100th excel at; they refuel almost all Air Forces in the European theater, particularly NATO members - as long as they are compatible with their counterparts’ systems (some NATO members use Russian-made aircraft which are incompatible with the KC-135R refueling systems).
The aircraft maintenance personnel are busy tying everything down inside the jet when we get there. The maintenance personnel have to be extremely professional when attending to an almost 60-year-old aircraft. We load our equipment and climb on board for an anticipated 8 and a half hour flight: 2.5 hours to our rendezvous point, four hours of refueling fighters and two hours back to base - all in a day's work for the squadron.
We get strapped in and the pilots get the engines started.
The noise levels are much worse than your average airliner and even combat aircraft due to the lack of insulation and the APU system which is located within the aircraft’s cargo hold. But from the outside the aircraft it is actually significantly quieter compared to the current Israeli version due to its much quieter turbofan engines. The Israeli version is limited in landing at certain international airports due to its noise level; this issue is less of a problem with the KC-135R.
We are soon flying over the British Coast on our way to the North Sea, where we will meet the first set of RDAF F-16s we are meant to refuel.
After two hours Master Sgt. Ingram calls me over to his "office" and tells me to get ready. It's pretty cramped - with three cots and not much room to move around - but it does have a large panoramic window with a jaw-dropping view that almost makes up for it.
His “office” is a set of electronic panels, dials and a joystick, a set up that is not much different than a cockpit only facing the rear of the aircraft. Master Sgt. Ingram gets himself set up and lowers the boom, the hydraulic extension of the aircraft used to “hook up” to the receiving aircraft and refill its fuel tanks.
Soon enough I see an F-16 “Viper” of the RDAF closing in on us from the rear fast, and then, after making an extremely quick approach, it seems as though the F-16 just hit the brakes and “parks” itself right in front of our faces.
Master Sgt. Ingram takes that as his cue and within seconds maneuvers the “boom” and connects the Fighter. We are now essentially flying as one aircraft for exactly 2 minutes, which is what it takes to refuel the fighter.
Finally, Ingram disconnects and pulls up the boom and the F-16 glides away gracefully - it all looks so easy!
The master sergeant will repeat this procedure over 30 times in the next 4 hours. During the process it seems that each pilot has their own “style” of approaching the boom, with some coming in alarmingly fast and others approaching very gradually.
After continuous hours of refueling Ingram calls it a day and closes up shop in the rear of the aircraft, joining his crew members up front to finish up the paperwork related to the mission. 150,000 lbs. of jet fuel is pretty expensive and as such is closely monitored.
After close to 8.5 hours in the air, Mildenhall is approaching, and the crew is off to debrief and much needed rest.
It is amazing to realize that had this aircraft been in the service of a commercial airline, it would have retired many years ago. But due to the intense maintenance and aerial crews that support the aircraft and its mission, the KC 135R is planned to continue serving with the USAF and the 100th until at least 2035.
Col. Kenneth T. Bibb, 100 Air Refueling Wing Commander, stresses the need for excellence as an integral part of its capability in maintaining the objectives of such a force.
"Our 100th Air Refueling Wing mission is to provide and employ global air refueling, combat support and expeditionary forces for our allied forces. Excellence in our core competencies allows us to play a significant role in the full range of operations downrange and at home station."
This mindset seems apparent throughout the day among the crew.
The obvious conclusion after witnessing such a mission that if each one of these KC- 135’s is capable of providing such support, any additional amount of them would be a significant force-multiplier in the region.
It's one that the IAF could certainly benefit from.
On several occasions Israeli aircraft returning from long-range missions were forced to make it back on fumes in their tanks (for example the Bombing of H3 in Iraq and the Osirak Nuclear Reactor).
When the issue of Iran is put on the table it is clear that the IAF wouldn’t be able to conduct such an operation without the tankers it already has - whether they will acquire more from the USAF’s fleet as promised remains to be seen.