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Refueling mission linchpin in allied training

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- It was a clear August morning on the Joint Base Andrews airfield when crews from the 459th Air Refueling Wing geared up for a flying mission almost a year in the making. As early light streamed into the dimly lit cockpit of one of the Wing’s eight KC-135R Stratotankers, pilots and boom operators went over preflight checklists, while maintainers ensured the aircraft was in top-notch shape for the long trek ahead.

Last week, the 459th Air Refueling Wing provided refueling escort to ten A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from the 175th Wing, Maryland Air National Guard, on their way to Estonia while simultaneously administering training to aircrews with the newly established 914th Air Refueling Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York.

“The mission was a joint effort among Air Force Reserve units and the Maryland Air National Guard,” said Capt. Katelyn Potts, 756th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. “Crewmembers from the 914th ARW joined 756th ARS members to man two KC-135 coronets in support of the 175th WG A-10 unit. On the day we launched, the first cell met up with the A-10s about three hours north of JBA and performed air refueling operations with the A-10s en route to Keflavik, Iceland.”

The entourage stopped in Keflavik after a more than seven-hour flight to refuel the aircraft and allow the crews rest.

“Our KC-135 refueled five airplanes one time each, offloading 33,100 pounds of fuel,” said Tech. Sgt. Steven Hood, 756th ARS boom operator. “We can only carry so much fuel and we don’t want to put the fighter pilots or the tanker crew in jeopardy without proper rest.”

After a night in Iceland, the KC-135s and A-10s made their way to their final destination: Tallinn, Estonia, where members of the 175th WG participated in a state partnership program.

“The National Guard in the state of Maryland has a state partnership program with Estonia and we try to get over there once a year to support their air force,” said a 175th WG pilot who goes by the callsign Donde. “When we are in combat and dropping bombs, we work with a Joint Terminal Attack Controller. The nation of Estonia has JTACs that deploy with NATO, and by us coming on this trip it allows us an opportunity to work with them, provide training and for us to see different environments so we can get training as well.”

Without the support of a refueler, what took only two days of travel to help get the slow-moving A-10s to Estonia could have taken weeks.

“To get to Iceland without refuelers we would need to stop to get gas three or four times,” said Donde. “We’d have to hop our way up and around the northeast coast through Canada, and what would take two days of travel would turn into a two week ordeal. Then the chance of jets breaking significantly increases. Every time we shut down engines there’s more of a risk something is not going to come back online the right way or is going to malfunction. Inflight refueling allows us to get there in a much quicker time, with significantly less jet issues.”

Even with a shorter itinerary, planners at the 459th Operations Group spent months pouring over every detail to ensure the mission was a smooth success.

“Prior to the trip departing, extensive planning was necessary due to the amount of fuel that would be required to not only get the KC135s to Estonia, but also the ten A-10s that were traveling with us,” said Potts. “The 756th ARS also had to research and pre-plan our landing base in Estonia due to runway length requirements and departing fuel needs. Through experience and coordination, the 756th and 175th were able to prepare for most issues to make the coronet mission a success.”

In addition to conducting to the refueling mission, the 459th also administered training to its Reserve neighbors at the 914th ARW, which was activated in June.

“The Niagara Reserve unit is in the process of transitioning to the KC-135s, and they are in need of qualified individuals to assist in mission qualification training,” said Potts. “The 756th ARS is introducing them to oceanic procedures as well as coronet missions and long-haul air refueling taskings so that they may better serve their unit and perform their mission. The big picture is that the Air Force total force is a joint effort and when other units are in need it is always important to help where able.”

After the more than 10,000 mile round-trip journey to get the A-10s to Estonia, the 756th ARW will bring them back home from across the Atlantic again some time in the future. In the meantime, mission pilots at the 756th ARS are taking stock in the impact they and their unit’s actions made.

“It was sincerely an honor to be involved with the 175th WG’s mission with its sister state and to help train the 914th ARW,” said Potts. “The mission and the total forces involved influenced NATO efforts and strengthened alliances. It is comforting to know that brothers and sisters across the Air Force, no matter the unit, are able to work together and accomplish such a great tasking.”