Tanker Tracker: KC-135 year-in-review

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  • By Staff Reports
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Since August 2015, KC-135 Stratotanker tail number 58-0011, has taken part in missions flown out of McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, and deployed locations across the globe. 

It has completed two deployments, locking down 126 sorties and offloading 2.08M pounds of fuel to 137 receiving aircraft.

The missions this specific KC-135 has been part of are just a tiny glimpse of what the rest of the tanker fleet has accomplished during the past year leading up to the 60th anniversary of the first KC-135 flight.

Below are just a few highlights from one KC-135's year-in-review.

KC-135 crew saves F-16 pilot from ejecting over enemy lines

In 2015, a deployed KC-135 Stratotanker crew responded to a call for help over ISIL-held territory. An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, who disconnected after receiving fuel from the tanker, alerted the crew that he had a fuel system emergency and was unable to use over 80 percent of his total fuel capability.

The F-16 could only use up to 15 minutes of fuel at a time, so the tanker crew escorted the aircraft out of enemy territory, to allied airspace and back to its base, while refueling every 15 minutes.

"The first thought I had from reading the note from the deployed location was extreme pride for the crew in how they handled the emergency," said Lt. Col. Eric Hallberg, 384th Air Refueling Squadron commander. "Knowing the risks to their own safety, they put the life of the F-16 pilot first and made what could've been an international tragedy, a feel-good news story. I'm sure they think it was not a big deal, however, that's because they never want the glory or fame."

Below BINGO

After completing two refueling missions over the mountains of Afghanistan, a KC-135 crew found themselves low on fuel when another request for support came from an aircraft in the middle of tracking down a high-level enemy leader on the ground.

The call for support would mean the tanker crew would not have enough fuel to return back to their base, a situation known as going “below bingo.” After weighing their options, the crew decided that the importance of the mission outweighed their own needs. They met up with the close-air-support aircraft and off-loaded the amount of fuel the receiver required, putting the tanker 12K pounds below bingo.

With the mission completed, the crew said they quickly evaluated their options to ensure their own safety. Fortunately, another tanker with a little extra fuel was heading their way and gave them just enough fuel for the crew to continue on and meet up with an alert KC-135. The combined effort allowed the crew to make it safely back to their deployed location.

"As good as I felt completing the mission and making it home, I always enjoy the next day more," said 1st Lt. Steve Hartig, 350th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. "After the aircrews reported to intelligence, [we saw the effects of the mission]. It is always nice to see what we supported and what they managed to do because of [the support], knowing that those 13 and half hours of chaos and stress paid off."

Tankers “Refuel the Fight” during Polar Roar

In July, four KC-135 aircrew assigned to McConnell refueled two B-52 Stratofortresses over Minnesota and Canada as part of Polar Roar, a mission held in the Arctic Circle that demonstrates flexible and vigilant long-range global-strike capability.

The mission involved three nonstop, simultaneous Continental U.S.-to-Continental U.S. routes of flight of strategic bombers, to include B-52s and B-2 Spirits. Polar Roar ensured bomber crews maintain a high state of readiness and crew proficiency, demonstrated their ability to provide a flexible and vigilant long-range global-strike capability, and provided opportunities to synchronize strategic activities and capabilities with regional allies and partners.

“We need to show our partners that we have these capabilities, it assures our allies we can that when we make promises, we can back them up,” said Maj. Matthew Jones, 349th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. “It shows future aggressors our capabilities as well.”

For the past year, the KC-135 has shown why it is the backbone of aerial refueling, and will continue to do so for years to come.