To see what really goes on in the day-to-day life of the tanker fleet, a National Defense reporter rode along on a recent training mission flown by the 108th Air Refueling Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard.
It was supposed to be a routine practice flight by three KC-135Es, based at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., but things did not go as planned.
The mission began with a 7:30 a.m. briefing for the three crews. Lead pilot Maj. Jim Casalino, who flies for United Airlines in his civilian job, outlined the day’s assignment—to refuel a group of three Air National Guard F-16 fighters, from nearby Atlantic City. The tankers would rendezvous with the fighters just off the New Jersey coast.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Virginia-based Navy air controllers—known by the call sign “Giant Killer”—carefully monitor the airspace along the coast. No aircraft can enter the area without their specific permission.
Half an hour had been allotted to accomplish the refueling, noted Senior Airman Robert Butler III. A waiter at an Atlantic City casino in civilian life, Butler was training to become an in-flight refueler, better known as a “boom operator.”
The boom operator, lying prone in the rear of the tanker, uses a joystick to control the transfer of fuel to the recipient aircraft. The fuel flows from the tanker to the recipient via an extendable, 30-foot-long tube called a flying boom. The operator has to fit the end of the boom into a small receptacle on the other aircraft.
Master Sgt. Joseph Lamantia, an in-flight refueling instructor, emphasized the need for speed and precision during refueling. “We’re going to lose a lot of crunch time if we don’t get in real quick and real tight,” he said. Lamantia, in his civilian job, is a systems technician for Verizon Communications Inc.
“An F-16 can’t get too close during refueling,” he explained. “Its receptacle is just behind the canopy. If it comes up too high, the angle is wrong, and the boom won’t fit.”
During this flight, Butler, under Lamantia’s tutelage, served as the boom on the lead tanker. The boom is one of three crewmembers normally assigned to this particular aircraft. The other two positions are pilot and co-pilot. A fourth position, navigator, was eliminated a few years ago on many KC-135s with an avionics upgrade known as Pacer CRAG, for compass, radar and global positioning system, or the glass cockpit.
As the refueling instructor, Lamantia was the fourth crewmember on this flight.
In addition to refueling, the boom operator is in charge of loading cargo and supervising passengers. The KC-135 can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo or 37 passengers.
Butler explained to a first-time passenger how to use the aircraft’s safety gear. The Emergency Passenger Oxygen System comes in a small pouch and includes a clear, plastic hood that provides up to 60 minutes of protection. “In case we have to ditch,” Butler said.
With the briefing complete, the three crews boarded vans for a short ride to their aircraft on the flight line. The crews carefully inspected their aircraft to make sure they were ready to go.
It is a precaution that is particularly important when an aircraft is old, Casalino said. “This aircraft was built in 1956,” he said. “But she’s been well-maintained.”
Soon, the engines—four Pratt and Whitney TF-33-PW-102 turbofans on each aircraft—were roaring, and the tankers taxied to the runway for takeoff. Then came the first sign of trouble.
The lead aircraft was having radio problems. Two of the tanker’s three radios were not working. Casalino was having trouble talking with the control tower and with Giant Killer.
“It’s a mess,” he said. “I’m sick of radios already.”
Then, the problem seemed to clear up, and the three aircraft moved to take off.
Suddenly, the radio crackled again. “You may have a hydraulic leak,” a voice said. “We see a pool of liquid under your aircraft. Hold on the tarmac. We’ll send somebody to check you out.”
A close inspection, however, failed to discover a leak, and the three tankers were cleared for takeoff. Soon, they were soaring over the lush farm fields of southern New Jersey, the Atlantic beaches and, finally, the ocean.
Casalino apologized for the difficulties thus far. “These planes have seen a lot recently,” he said. The 108th has been activated three times since 1999, for Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As for this aircraft, “she’s a good old bird,” Casalino said. “I really can’t complain.”
A few minutes later, radio troubles returned. Casalino found it difficult to contact the F-16s that the tankers were supposed to refuel. “We have no radios apparently,” said the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Tom Cervini, a pilot for Express Jet Airlines in his day job. “All of our radios are going. That’s bizarre, man.”
Soon, as quickly as they appeared, the glitches apparently disappeared. Now, the tankers were able to establish contact with the F-16s, and the other two tankers refueled two of them.
“Our aircraft is the last one to receive a fighter,” said Butler as he lay on his belly, at his station in the aircraft’s rear, with his hand on the joystick.
As he spoke, an F-16 appeared just beneath the tanker, and Butler—as Lamantia watched every move—gently guided the boom into position.
Just as the boom slipped into the FC-16’s receptacle, however, the boom window was covered suddenly with a dark brown fluid.
“Break away! Break away!” cried Lamantia. “We obviously have a serious hydraulic leak. It’s a real flight emergency.”
As quickly as the F-16 appeared, it was gone, having received no fuel. Now the question was, how damaged was the aircraft?
“We’ve lost the automatic pilot,” said Casalino. “I’m flying with manual controls, doing the flaps by hand.”
Steering a KC-135 without automatic pilot is “like driving an 18-wheeler,” he said. “This just doesn’t happen.”
Nevertheless, flying was not a problem, Casalino explained. “We could fly all day without hydraulics,” he said.
Landing, however, could be a bit tricky. Casalino alerted the control tower at McGuire that he might have to make an emergency landing, which might involve shutting down the runway, alerting the fire trucks, and getting a tow back to the flight line.
As it turned out, the tanker still had sufficient hydraulic fluid to land normally. A preliminary inspection showed that the aircraft had lost two gallons out of the total of 25 gallons that it carries. All of the lost fluid came from the hydraulic system that controls the boom.
Once on the ground, Casalino said he was surprised at how tired he felt from wrestling with the manual controls of the KC-135. “In my day job, I fly a 767,” he said. “You can fly them with your finger tips. This is a big truck.”
The problem, said Lt. Col. Kevin Keehn, commander of the 108th’s Operations Group, which includes the wing’s aircrews, is that, “basically, these airplanes are getting old. The maintenance guys are doing everything they can to keep them running.”
Despite occasional glitches, they are performing quite well, he said. “When we deployed to Oman, we had five airplanes flying seven sorties a day for six months. During that period, we had a 99.9 percent sortie completion rate.”
A boom hydraulic failure is “not that big a deal,” Keehn said. “You find the problem, fix it and bring the aircraft right out to fly.”
The operational tempo resulting from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus homeland defense, is keeping a lot of pressure on both the aircrews and maintenance personnel, Keehn said. “The pilots are trying to balance their airline jobs, this job and their families.”
Still, the 108th has no trouble finding pilots. “We have pilots waiting to come here,” Keehn said. “One of the reasons is the airlines aren’t hiring. In fact, we have a lot of furloughed pilots.”
The Guard tries to make service attractive to the crews by treating them well, Lamantia said. “We’re treated pretty much as kings around here, because they know we’re all volunteers.”
Also, because the 108th is a state Guard unit, its members seldom are transferred, providing stability for families. Lamantia, for example, has served 16 years with the 108th.
Another thing that Guardsmen find attractive about their service, Casalino said, is the relaxed military discipline. “There’s no rank in our airplanes,” he said. “I rely on these guys to keep me out of trouble, and they rely on me. We’re a team. We don’t sweat the small stuff.”
The picture is different on the maintenance side. The 108th Maintenance Group—which keeps the planes flying—is beginning to lose its most experienced personnel, said its commander, Lt. Col. Richard Buckley. “We had a guy retire recently at age 62,” Buckley said. “He had crewed the same plane for 20 years. He knew that airplane in and out. It’s hard to replace that kind of experience.”
In all, about 45 percent of the group’s maintenance work force is eligible for retirement, Buckley said. To fill the vacancies, the group is recruiting at local high schools, technical schools, colleges and job fairs.
For half a century, the Guard’s Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, flown by part-time military pilots and crews, have delivered up to 200,000 pounds of fuel each to U.S. and allied fighter jets.
With an average age of 44.3 years, KC-135s are now the oldest combat weapon system in the Air Force inventory. As the tankers age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep them in working order, Air Force officials said.
The 108th expects to fly KC-135s for the foreseeable future, officers agreed. The Air Force would like to begin replacing them with 100 leased Boeing KC-767A tankers as early as 2006, but that plan has been attacked on Capitol Hill as wasteful. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has put the proposal on hold until the completion, perhaps this month, of two additional studies.
Even if the leases should eventually be approved, the 108th —part of the Air National Guard, not the Air Force—is not scheduled to receive the KC-767As. The wing is supposed to receive a more recent model—the KC-135R—which has newer, more fuel-efficient CFM-56 engines, “but we’re pretty far down on the list,” said Keehn.