IN THE MILITARY
AIR FORCE PHOTO
A Hawaii National Guard KC-135 transfers 80,000 pounds of jet fuel to a C-17 Globemaster cargo jet 20,000 feet over the Black Sea.
Isle Guard tankers keep Middle East forces fueled
Four KC-135 jet Stratotankers from the Hawaii Air National Guard are continuing to provide the air refueling bridge for cargo planes flying combat missions in the Middle East.
Since 1999 and the war in the Balkans, 203rd Air Refueling Squadron jet tankers and their crews have been undertaking these 30-day active duty missions from France, Russia and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
The Hawaii Air National Guard's 120 pilots and crew have been stationed for the past three weeks at Incirlik Air Base, seven miles from Adana, Turkey, joining the 1,500 active duty airmen and women stationed there. It is all part of the ever-increasing role for Hawaii Air Guard refueling and C-17 Globemaster jet cargo aircraft.
The Hickam unit is assigned to the 39th Air Base Wing. It is one of the Air Force's largest C-17 Globemaster cargo hubs supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October, Incirlik served as an air bridge for the Pakistan earthquake relief effort.
Lt. Col. D.J. "Diablo" Shaw, who normally flies international routes for Federal Express, said in a telephone interview from Turkey that "an average mission takes about three hours" and then the air crews are required to rest for 12 hours before flying another refueling mission.
The Hickam Air Force Base unit maintains nine KC-135 Stratotankers and is in line to get four more tankers when the military closes Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and redistributes the aircraft belonging to the 319th Air Refueling Wing. Nearly half of the Air Force's 545 refuelers belong to reserve units .
A single jet tanker, which is the military's version of a Boeing 707 jet, can "offload 10,000 to 12,000 gallons per mission," said Shaw, who has been flying in the Air Guard for the past 23 years.
Senior Airman Cal "Gaucho" Cordeiro operates the boom, which trails anywhere from 28 inches to 47 feet behind the 136-foot jet tanker.
"A refueling mission is always the same no matter where you are in the world," said Cordeiro, a 1993 Campbell High School graduate.
Flying at about 21,000 feet, Cordeiro lies on his belly at the back of the KC-135, peering down as an aircraft lines up underneath. His right hand controls the 20-foot boom, moving it up and down and from side to side. His left hand directed the fuel tube in the boom, which can extend another 20 feet and can transfer 100,000 pounds of JP-8 jet fuel in 15 to 20 minutes.
Shaw, 46, described the 30-day mission as "a multiforce effort with the Guard supporting the active duty Air Force. ... As a tanker pilot, we are one of the import links in the chain to keep this train going down the track by refueling the planes flying in and out of the Middle East."
Capt. Jason "PY" Palmeira has been flying tanker-refueling missions for 10 years.
Shaw, who flew jet fighters until he joined the Hawaii Air Guard in 1997, added: "The Guard plays a significant role in the efforts of the active duty. ... It's the same as the Guard and the Army Reserve and other units from Hawaii. The Guard plays an important role in these missions and will continue to play a more important role as time goes on, especially with budget cuts and active duty cuts.
"There are guys like myself, who are doing two jobs and raising a family, and it becomes a pretty big sacrifice for guys who stay in the Guard and continue to do this."
On March 30, the secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, said the Air Force will decide by mid-2007 which aircraft manufacturer will build the next family of KC-135 tankers. Bloomberg News said the competition to supply new planes is likely to be Boeing Co. against a team from Northrop Grumman Corp. and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., Europe's biggest aerospace company.
The Pentagon reported in a news release that the Air Force wants to buy about 15 to 20 replacement tankers a year. At that rate, by the time the last KC-135 is replaced, it could be as old as 80 years.
The Bush administration has requested $239 million to start the tanker competition in October. The Air Force budget includes $1.2 billion next year to build three tankers, $2.1 billion for seven the following year, and $5.1 billion for another 20 to be built by 2011.