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"There I was...: Deployment as a learning experience"

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Roberta Parker
  • 99th Air Refueling Squadron
I knew from the day I joined the Air Force that I would be tasked to deploy. I just never knew that I would have so much fun doing it. While it was difficult being away from my husband and missing the birth of our dog's eight puppies (they were so cute). I had an incredible experience on my first deployment to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. I learned a great deal, interacted with incredible people and was impressed by how much the base had to offer to keep me entertained.

I became mission ready on the KC-135 in June and deployed by the end of August. On this trip, I was fortunate that both my aircraft commander and boom operator were experienced with more than 8,000 combined flight hours and would keep me out of trouble.

Unfortunately, trouble found us soon enough, as I'm sure it does for every deployment. With a handful of flights under our belt, we had a string of emergencies. After having maintenance issues and rushing to a spare tanker for an on-time departure, our gear wouldn't raise. We unfortunately could not complete the mission and someone was sent in our stead, but I would much rather prefer gear that wouldn't rise over gear that wouldn't lower. We also had an issue with our radios all going out, forcing us to yell at each other in the dark.

After completing a full day of refueling in the Area of Responsibility and flying back to base, we suddenly lost all of our navigation systems. In an instant we reverted from a multi-functional navigation system with pinpoint precision capability, to that of the first airplane flown by the Birmingham Air National Guard - the JN-2 Jenny. All that was available to us was an airspeed indicator, a magnetic compass and a clock. While I appreciate the challenge and nostalgia that comes from navigating off such basic instruments, 20 miles from Iran, I'd rather not. While I was frantically searching my checklist to find what procedure applied, (despite the hours of experience, no one on our jet had seen this issue before) my aircraft commander requested that the two F-15s 20 miles ahead of us turn around and navigate us home. When they arrived we were again relieved to see the USAF insignia instead of an Iranian fighter coming to intercept us for violating airspace restrictions. Upon finding the appropriate checklist, we were able to resume our own navigation home. Those F-15s probably didn't think much of turning around, but we were grateful for their help.
It is easy to think that the KC-135 does not have a glamorous mission when compared to fighters and bombers. After all, I'm not shooting missiles, dropping bombs or gathering intelligence vital to daily operations. I'm strictly a support function that enables other jets to fly. But then there are times when I realize how important our mission is. My first flight in the AOR we were re-tasked to refuel two F-16s that, due to weather, were below their bingo fuel and would not be able to make it home. My father who flew the F-111 and F-16 before he retired in 1993 assured me that the back side of a tanker is sometimes the most beautiful site he's ever seen. Based on the email of thanks from the lead F-16 pilot that day, I'd say they felt the same way.

At home station, while there is a desire to meet our scheduled receivers, a broken jet can sometimes slow us down or even prevent us from taking off. In a deployed environment, I've learned that a cancelled sortie not only affects the entire day's mission but can negatively affect the troops on the ground. In a way this is a circle of support. I won't be able to provide gas to the fighters supporting ground troops if maintenance doesn't fix the jet, if services haven't provided lunch for my 10 hour mission, or if HARM doesn't provide me with flight orders. No one is a one man show in the Air Force and everyone requires the support of someone else.

When the time came for the deployment to come to a close I was more than excited. The day before our flight home we started mission planning and discovered we would have HR (human remains) on our flight. Learning about this addition immediately changed my outlook on our return flight. It put into somber perspective the importance of our mission and the risks people take. I speak for my entire crew when I say it was an honor to fly those two Army soldiers and their escorts out of the desert and home to their final resting place.

When all was said and done during my two month deployment, I left with 150 combat hours in the KC-135, doubling the amount of hours I had built up at home in the preceding 4 months. I became a more confident copilot, made some new incredible friends, and gained a valuable perspective on the importance of my role in the Air Force.

On top of all of that, I was there to see the civilian clothes come to Al Udeid, a milestone for many. And while Qatar is nowhere near one of my top travel destinations, I'm looking forward to my next deployment, which I expect to be even better now that I know exactly where the ping pong tables are.