ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Reserve Citizen Airmen from across the country have volunteered to help wage America’s battle with COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean Air Force Reserve Command’s long-standing mission of providing combat-ready forces to fly, fight and win has been put on hold.
In fact, unit Reservists and individual mobilization augmentees from coast to coast have continued to train for their wartime mission and perform essential duties during the coronavirus pandemic. Here are just a few examples of how Reservists have continued to accomplish the Reserve’s traditional missions in the COVID-19 era.
Turning Wrenches and Flying Missions
While many Americans have been working from home to mitigate the transmission risk of COVID-19, when it comes to flying and maintaining airplanes, some jobs can’t be done via telework. Reserve aircrews and maintainers at flying units around the country have continued to turn wrenches and fly missions during this time of social distancing.
As an example, Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 927th Air Refueling Wing took off in a KC-135 from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, on April 2, to meet up with F-15s to conduct mid-air refueling operations, one of the countless training flights Reserve flying units have conducted despite the coronavirus pandemic. These flights have continued so Reserve Citizen Airmen can maintain their readiness to accomplish their wartime mission.
Flying missions like these allow aircrew members, like 1st Lt. Clayton Gledhill, a new pilot who joined the 927th’s 63rd Air Refueling Squadron in February, to practice critical skills.
Gledhill said he identifies with families struggling to balance work, remote school work and family time at home. “When I head to the base to fly, I say goodbye to my wife who will spend the day helping our three kids with school work while also teleworking for her job,” said Gledhill. “On top of that stress, we are very careful about germs I may bring back with me and do our best to protect our family.”
Extra precautions have been put in place to minimize the health risk to those still working on and around Reserve flightlines, including splitting shifts and ensuring crews work with the same people when they come in to fly and work.
“Our Airmen are the best in the world at what they do and it’s important we do everything we can to keep them healthy while they work,” said Lt. Col. Ginger Ormond, the 927th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander.
Rescue Wing Brings Home First HC-13J Combat King II
On the same day Gledhill and his fellow Reservists were refueling F-15s from their MacDill KC-135, the 920th Rescue Wing’s 39th Rescue Squadron brought home its first HC-130J Combat King II aircraft to Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
“This is an exciting time for the men and women of the 39th RQS, the 920th RQW and the Air Force Reserve Command,” said Lt. Col. Ellis, 39th RQS commander. “The delivery of the first HC-130J represents a major milestone in our unit’s transition. The new aircraft will enable enhanced mission capabilities and ensure the successful execution of future combat search and rescue operations.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Airmen, as well as Lockheed Martin personnel, took several precautionary measures to ensure their health and the health of those they may come in contact with.
“We eliminated the customary factory tour, team introductions as well as the key ceremony, in which Lockheed Martin gives the gaining unit a symbolic key to the aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Rich, 920th Operations Group HC-130J conversion officer. “In fact, our 920th maintenance experts limited their interaction with Lockheed Martin personnel to an absolute minimum prior to releasing the aircraft to the aircrew.”
The 920th maintenance personnel were able to expedite the acceptance and pre-flight checks of the first AFRC HC-130J, accomplishing all required tasks in nearly half the normally allotted time.
“The aircrew avoided local contact entirely with assistance from the 71st Rescue Squadron out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia,” Rich said. “The 71st provided a pilot and loadmaster to round out our aircrew from the 39th RQS in addition to flying us all from Patrick to the Lockheed factory.”
At Lockheed, the crew picked up the aircraft without any fanfare.
“We executed the first-ever engine running offload on the Lockheed Martin ramp and proceeded directly to the aircraft,” Rich said. “This has never been done before and the aircrew was able to avoid the Lockheed facilities altogether. It was a truly unique and exceptionally well thought out plan to limit our exposure to the current threat.”
Once the power-up and preflight checks were complete, the combined team from the 920th and 71st departed the airfield in Georgia, without incident.
“The day was complete when the 71st RQS crewmembers, who assisted us, were picked up from Patrick AFB and returned safely to Moody AFB,” Rich said. “Despite all that is going on in the world today, I am proud to have been a small part of the great effort by the Total Force working together to overcome seemingly unlimited obstacles. It was inspiring to witness the priority placed on the protection of each Airman while still focusing on mission accomplishment.”
Dover Reservists Support Counterdrug Mission
Also early in April, a 512th Airlift Wing aircrew comprised of Reserve Citizen Airmen demonstrated the Reserve’s ability to continue to fly critical missions by airlifting counterdrug equipment out of Panama.
The mission from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, supported the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and involved hauling more than 100,000 pounds of cargo from Panama Pacificio International Airport, Panama, to San Angelo Regional Airport, Texas.
“It was a difficult mission because of all the moving parts and the constantly changing dynamics,” said Capt. Scott McCoy, 709th Airlift Squadron pilot and aircraft commander. “It was successful because we had a crew of highly experienced people who went above and beyond to make sure the job got done.”
Loadmasters and DHS personnel filled the cargo compartment with 12 pallets and 11 rolling stock items that included mobile generators, trailers and surveillance equipment used to counter illicit drug trafficking throughout the region.
The 512th AW regularly participates in these operations with both its C-5M and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft to deliver personnel and material for other government agencies, while receiving readiness training for its aircrew.
In addition to the primary mission of transporting cargo, three loadmasters and a flight engineer received and passed evaluation check-rides, ensuring their updated qualifications and readiness.
“With minimal on-ground support in Panama, these loadmasters successfully accomplished a difficult load in an efficient manner,” said Master Sgt. David Finfinger, 709th AS evaluator loadmaster.
Overseas Deployments Continue
While most of the country hunkered down at home this spring, some Reservists headed halfway around the world to support critical combat operations overseas.
In late March, for example, more than 80 Airmen and four KC-135 Stratotankers from the 434th Air Refueling Wing, Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana, deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Air Force Central Command combat operations.
“Despite the effects of COVID-19, our mission continues and our deployments are still on schedule,” said Col. Larry Shaw, 434th ARW commander. “Grissom has a long history of doing things right and we plan on carrying that forward. People are relying on us.”
“Our maintainers have prepared the tankers with required deployment configurations specific to their deployed location,” said Col. Gretchen Wiltse, 434th Maintenance Group commander. “That not only includes adding additional refueling requirements, but also ensuring aircraft are capable of transporting troops and cargo.”
Working where the rubber meets the asphalt, Master Sgt. Benjamen Bond, 434th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron expeditor, said it’s a priority to ensure tankers leaving Grissom are prepared not only to reach their destination, but to also make it through their deployments with minimal maintenance.
“If we see things that might become an issue while the tankers are deployed we fix them before they leave,” said Bond. “We don’t want to create problems for the maintainers down range; we want them to be able to focus on the mission.”
“This is a difficult time for everyone, but it’s also an opportunity for us to show that we can continue to conduct the mission despite the obstacles at hand,” explained Shaw. “Everything we do involves risk, but the 434thARW has some of the best leaders in the Air Force assessing those risks to ensure the safety and wellness of our Airmen.”
Wing Presses on with Transition from KC-135 to KC-46
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 916th Air Refueling Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, continued to transition from the KC-135 to the KC-46. In late March, the wing welcomed back its first two pilots to complete KC-46A Pegasus training: Capt. Joseph “Mike” Orzeck and Maj. Nathan Rodriguez.
Transitioning to a new aircraft after exclusively flying the KC-135 Stratotanker brought about mixed emotions for the two pilots.
“You’re excited to learn a new aircraft, but at the same time it’s sad that you’re leaving a plane like the KC-135,” said Orzeck. “I felt honored to fly a plane like that. There’s not many four engine jets out there anymore. It’s definitely a last of its kind. It was bittersweet.”
Part of their new training was learning to take on fuel, since the KC-135 was not equipped to receive refueling in-air.
“I have a brand-new appreciation for the guys that flew behind me (receiver pilots) when I flew as a tanker pilot,” said Rodriguez. “When the tanker pilot makes corrections, it makes a big difference to the receiver in the back. It gives me a new appreciation for guys that refuel off me. I think it makes you a better tanker pilot to do receiver work.”
During their 10 weeks of training on the KC-46, the pilots couldn’t get enough of the new technology that comes along with this new aircraft.
“I love the KC-135, but you’re going from a plane with 1950’s technology and jumping to a plane in the 21st century when flying the KC-46,” Orzeck said. “It’s like going from watching a black and white TV to a smart TV, you can’t compare the two.”
With two pilots down and approximately 38 to go, the 916th has opened its doors to the next generation of air refueling.
Medical Reservists Ramp up Training
With hundreds of Reserve medical professionals from across the country volunteering to be mobilized if needed in the fight against COVID-19, Reserve medical units ramped up their training this spring.
At Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, for example, Reservists with the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron participated in a training mission April 6 to maintain and enhance their medical skills.
While 34th AES reservists trained to maintain their normal skillsets of providing critical medical care to ill and injured patients, they also evaluated how their response would change if they were activated to support the COVID-19 response.
“Today we have orthopedic injuries, or combat injuries, in our scenario,” said Lt. Col. Kimberly MacPherson, 34 AES director of operations. “But due to what is going on in the world, we are also including enhanced infection control while on the plane.”
The AES reservists volunteered to participate in the training and were provided the proper personal protection equipment to protect themselves while training. They set up a C-130H to hold their medical gear and then simulated receiving patients onto the aircraft with mannequins. Once they were in flight, the team ran through several scenarios.
“It’s important for all the units to maintain mission readiness and make sure our Airmen are ready to respond to a tasking in case we get a request,” said Col. James DeVere, 302nd Airlift Wing commander. “That is why we are continuing to train in AE and our normal C-130 air-land mission to answer the call when the American people need us.”
Niagara Wing Reaches Full Operational Capability
Almost three years ago, the 914th Airlift Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York, started the transition to become the 914th Air Refueling Wing, switching from the C-130 Hercules to the KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft.
On April 1, Col. Mark Larson, commander of the 914th announced the wing was fully operational capable in the air refueling mission.
"My thanks to the many Airmen and the DoD civilians who have worked so hard," said Larson. "While at the same time maintaining our readiness to execute the other taskings and deployments required of many of our wing personnel."
The 914th Operations Group, including the 328th Air Refueling Squadron and 914th Aeromedical Squadron, has spent several years training with instructors from across the nation to become eligible to execute the tanker mission. The 914th Maintenance Group has also put in countless hours of work to keep all nine tankers ready to fly at a moment's notice.
"The nation needed NFARS fully back in the fight, and today we are letting our leaders know we are ready and willing," said Larson. #ReserveReady #ReserveResilient ■
(Editor's note: Some last names withheld for security reasons. Lt. Col. Lisa Ray, Tech. Sgt. Kelly Goonan, Staff Sgt. Zachary Cacicia, Master Sgt. Ben Mota, Staff Sgt. Mary McKnight, 2nd Lt. Lucas Morrow and Tech. Sgt. Joshua Williams contributed to this story.)