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How many people does it take to fly a KC-135?

  • Published
  • By Col. Barry Roeper
  • 6th Maintenance Group commander
I recently had the opportunity to fly on a KC-135 during a local training mission. When you're in charge of the Airmen who maintain these venerable flying machines, there's nothing like seeing firsthand the results of all the hard work that goes into keeping these jets in the air, carrying out the mission. It turned out to be both educational and a whole lot of fun!

I showed up at the 91st Air Refueling Squadron's home (Building 56) at 7 a.m. for the pre-mission planning. That's where I met the aircrew, Capt. Jeff Lascurain, aircraft commander/instructor pilot; 1st Lt. Donny Hart, copilot; and Senior Airman John Pena, refueling boom operator. 1st Lt. Alessandra Horban, the 6th Operations Group executive officer, was also joining us for an orientation flight before she headed off to school to become a remotely piloted aircraft pilot. The aircrew showed me how they obtain the latest weather information for our planned route and check the Notices to Airman for any hazards or other important information that may affect our flight. They verified the coordination with the receiver aircraft (in our case F-22 stealth fighters), and processed the flight orders. We also filled out an Operational Risk Management worksheet to ensure everyone was physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to accomplish the mission.

Lascurain gave us a pre-mission brief that described in detail everything that would take place from showing up for the bus that would take us to the aircraft, to taking the bus back to building 56 after the mission was complete. Our mission was to head up to the Florida panhandle to refuel two F-22s, then fly back to MacDill to do transition (practice landings/takeoffs). Hart needed to do the approaches to satisfy some training requirements.

At 8:30 a.m. we boarded the bus that took us to the aircraft, where we were met by the maintenance launch crew. Tech. Sgt. Kevin McGrath, 927th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was the lead crew chief and knew everything there was to know about the condition of his aircraft. He gave us a thorough briefing. We also met Staff Sgt. Brian Hartman, 927th AMXS, and Airman 1st Class Adam Vasas, 6th AMXS, who made up the rest of our Total Force Integrated launch crew. After discussing the condition of the aircraft and emergency procedures, it was down to business. Everyone worked together to remove all the "remove before flight" safety equipment from the aircraft and get the aircrew's equipment loaded. In the cockpit, the aircrew started running through pre-flight checklists. That's when we hit a snag.

The aircraft we were going to fly was built in 1960. It's a wonderful piece of machinery, but it's 52 years old. According to an article by Scott Mayerowitz in the San Francisco Chronicle April 10, 2011, the average age of jets flown by U.S. airlines was 11 years, which was slightly higher than the world average of 10 years. Venezuela had the oldest commercial aircraft fleet in the world with an average of just under 28 years. So by comparison, the KC-135 is ancient with a fleet average age of more than 50 years. Yet the KC-135 continues to be the backbone of our refueling fleet, supporting combat operations, humanitarian relief efforts, nuclear readiness, and aircrew training. Keeping safe and reliable KC-135 aircraft in the air requires a Herculean effort, and our maintainers do it better than anyone else (which they proved last year at the Air Mobility Command Rodeo Competition, where they were named "Best KC-135 Maintenance"). It appears on this day, we were going to put them to the test.

Indications showed the aircraft's main battery was overcharging, and McGrath quickly assessed we needed a new battery. This is not a car battery ... the KC-135's main battery weighs 40-45 lbs. To get a new battery from the maintenance battery shop to the aircraft, get it up the crew ladder inside the aircraft, and then to change the battery in time for us to make our 10 o'clock departure was a very tall order. But McGrath quickly contacted the flightline production superintendent, who coordinated getting us a new battery. Then he and Airman 1st Class Curtis Booms, 6th AMXS, hoisted the battery into the aircraft and swapped it out, giving us plenty of time for an on-time departure.

But, alas, an on-time departure wasn't to be. For that's when we ran into the second snag: the aircrew's data card that contained our flight plan would not transfer the data to the aircraft's Flight Management System computer. Once again the maintainers were quickly on the scene. Senior Airman Adam Pham, 6th AMXS, explained to us the software on this aircraft was an older version and the data on the aircrew's card was for the newer version. As it turns out, our jet was the only aircraft at MacDill that didn't have the upgraded software ... Murphy's Law in action! But we weren't about to let that foil us; Hart promptly started manually loading the flight plan into the FMS while Lascurain coordinated with Command Post to see if the F-22s were willing to slip the air refueling by 10 minutes. They were able to accommodate the slip, so we finished our pre-flight actions, taxied, and took off at 10:20 a.m. We were 20 minutes late, but we were in the air!

The rest of the flight went flawlessly. We easily made up 10 minutes of flight time en route and met up with the F-22s exactly when and where they expected us. I had the opportunity to ride in the back of the aircraft to watch the boomer, Pena, make contact with the F-22s. This was his first time refueling F-22s, and he nailed the mating of the refueling boom nozzle with the F-22's air refueling receptacle so fast and smooth, he made me think of "Bullseye" from the movie "Daredevil." After the air refuelings, we headed back to MacDill so Hart could perform his transition training before completing a "full-stop" landing. Having had the opportunity to "land" the aircraft in the KC-135 simulator, it was exciting to watch the crew smoothly land the aircraft and take off again six times. They make it look so easy!

When we taxied back to our parking spot, we were happy to tell my maintainers the aircraft had no discrepancies. After accomplishing the post-flight checks, I broke away to go back to my office to get caught up on my real job. The adrenaline from the flight lasted the rest of the day ... it was a great day!

One of the most striking things about our two and a half hour local training flight is how many people were directly involved in making it a success. From the maintainers (not just the launch crew, but all the maintainers who repaired, inspected, and serviced the jet), to the petroleum oil lubricants drivers who delivered the gas (an aerial refueler is not much good without gas), to the transportation Airmen who drove the crew and equipment to and from the aircraft, to the Command Post controllers who coordinated with the receivers, to the many air traffic controllers (MacDill, Tampa International, Jacksonville Center, etc) who made sure we didn't share the same airspace with another aircraft at the same time, and probably a host of others I wasn't even aware of. All these people had to be on their "A game" to make this one local training mission a success. And they do it more than 2,000 times a year at MacDill!

And let's not forget all the Airmen who indirectly make these missions a success. Without supply, the maintainers can't fix airplanes; without communication, there's no radios in the control tower, no navigation aids for instrument approaches, no computer network to get weather information and NOTAMS; without force support to provide us with CAC cards, we can't even get on the base, let alone log-on to the computers; without medics the crews aren't fit to fly; without security forces the whole operation is at risk; without the fire department ... well would you like to be sitting on thousands of gallons of gas with running jet engines if you didn't know fire fighters were VERY close by? Let's face it, there isn't anyone in the 6th or 927th who doesn't impact our flying operations in some way. Thankfully, we've got the finest Airmen in the world to guarantee our success.

So how many people does it take to fly a KC-135? It takes every Airman in the Wing!