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Fueling relief: reserve airmen give 'legs' to operation unified response.

Senior Master Sgt. Rod McClary wasn't surprised his phone was ringing. On alert for the Northern Tanker Task Force, or TTF, and already in his billeting room, he was waiting on the call for his next mission. A few times each month he travels to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and waits for a phone call like this telling when, not if, he's to do the business at hand. In the world of aerial refueling, business is good.

"Being on TTF, normally they put you on a reserve line," he said. "A reserve line is normally seven straight days. Any time during that period you can get a call and have to be airborne within three hours."

A day's mission aboard the Air Force's largest refueling platform, the KC-10 Extender, could take him thousands of miles in any direction. This day's mission was no different, but the missions of the receivers he refueled were. They were supporting relief operations in Haiti and needed enough fuel to get in and out of the damaged airport. When he got to the squadron he still didn't know where the mission was headed.

"Normally, TTF gets a tasking from higher headquarters that says, 'we have a mission going out to wherever,'" the boom operator said. "When we did this Haiti mission, I didn't know we were actually going to do that. They just told us it was a really long mission."

"This particular mission was scheduled for seven hours," he said. "It took us a couple of hours to get down to the Haiti track. Once we got down there, we orbited for about three hours."

While circling above Haiti, the crew waits for receivers to come to them. On this mission, Sergeant McClary said he refueled two aircraft, both EC-130S, that couldn't complete their missions without aerial refueling. It was during the refueling that he heard what Haiti was like on the ground.

"One of the ECs was going in and one was coming out of Haiti," he recalled. "The one that was going in was carrying water and medical supplies. I actually talked to the pilot on the radio and he told me that. The one that was coming out, they had been on the ground maybe an hour and dropped off some troops."

Though Sergeant McClary could talk to the crew over the radio, he used a communication tool, like an intercom, called a boom interphone. It creates a direct communication line between the tanker and receiver without broadcasting it over already congested airwaves. Through it he was able to talk to the EC-130 pilots and have an open conversation about what they saw.

"I did get a sense of the chaos that was going on in Haiti," Sergeant McClary said. "One of the aircraft had a female pilot and she put it into words best because you could hear her voice cracking. She said, 'I've never seen anything like that in my entire life.' That basically summed it up right there. She's special operations so she's used to seeing stuff and this was the worst."

Sergeant McClary said the tanker mission can make him feel removed from the ground operation. The KC-10 typically returns to home station without landing at an operational location. However, he said the conversations with receivers remind him of the need for aerial refueling and how it allows airlift to bring larger than normal payloads into the country.

"Our whole thing deals with the weight," he said, adding that every airframe has a maximum take-off weight. "You have a combination between cargo and fuel. You can't have max of both because you won't be able to take off."

Sergeant McClary explained how aircraft can take off with a maximum cargo load but must sacrifice with a lighter fuel load.

"Once you get off the ground and you know you're going to be refueled, you can take off with minimum fuel and a tanker will top you off. Once you're in the air, you can go to your aircraft's structural max weight," Sergeant McClary said.

He said the EC-130S flying into Haiti held heavy cargo loads. These aircraft needed to be topped off to make it back to Florida. For the receivers, it's good to know there's a fueling station in the air just off the coast.

The KC-10 can fly up to 11,500 miles and the smaller KC-135 Stratotanker is able to fly more than 11,000 miles. He also said Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve conduct the bulk of aerial refueling.

According to Lt. Col. Bill Harkins, a KC-10 pilot with the 78th ARS, and the pilot on the first aerial refueling mission in support of Haiti operations, Reservists working for the TTF are primarily responsible for refueling aircraft taking people and cargo to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Having tankers on continuous call gives command a lot of flexibility that paid off during this crisis," he said.

"I got the call at around (midnight)," he said. "My crew was the first to give gas to a receiver. The first receiver was an MC-130 coming out of Haiti. He needed fuel to make it to his final destination. When we were done with the first receiver, we were getting ready to head home because our other scheduled receiver had a change of destination and didn't require fuel. However, another 130 was coming in who desperately needed fuel. We ended up giving them gas inbound to Haiti."

According to Colonel Harkins, this flexibility was crucial in the early days when aerial refueling was the only option.

"Without aerial refueling, a lot of aircraft, like the C-130s, couldn't make it to their final destination," he said. "They rely on having a tanker orbiting around waiting to refuel them."

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Author:Croxon, J.Paul
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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