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Expeditionary aircrew spends Christmas at 30,000 feet

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender aircrew laughs before a group photo after flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. KC-10 aircrews have completed more than 1,500 sorties during the liberation of Mosul, Iraq since Oct. 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender aircrew laughs before a group photo after flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. KC-10 aircrews have completed more than 1,500 sorties during the liberation of Mosul, Iraq since Oct. 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender pilot, 1st Lt. Andrew communicates with maintainers during a preflight inspection before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. Since Oct. 2016, 380 AEW KC-10s have completed more than 1,500 sorties against Da’esh and Levant operations in Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender pilot, 1st Lt. Andrew communicates with maintainers during a preflight inspection before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. Since Oct. 2016, 380 AEW KC-10s have completed more than 1,500 sorties against Da’esh and Levant operations in Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing crew chief completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW maintainers have contributed to more than 5000 strikes during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East and throughout the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing crew chief completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW maintainers have contributed to more than 5000 strikes during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East and throughout the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing crew chief completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW maintainers have contributed to more than 5,000 strikes during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East and throughout the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing crew chief completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW maintainers have contributed to more than 5,000 strikes during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East and throughout the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An aircrew eats a holiday meal while flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. During the flight the crew snacked on oven-ready chicken nuggets, pizza and pita bread.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An aircrew eats a holiday meal while flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. During the flight the crew snacked on oven-ready chicken nuggets, pizza and pita bread. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

Staff Sgt. Aaron completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection before flying a sortie at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing has successfully offloaded more than 58 million pounds of fuel since the beginning of the liberation of Mosul, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

Staff Sgt. Aaron completes a KC-10 Extender preflight inspection before flying a sortie at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing has successfully offloaded more than 58 million pounds of fuel since the beginning of the liberation of Mosul, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender crew chief exchanges farewells with a boom operator before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. KC-10s have contributed to more than 1,200 precision guided strikes against Da’esh and Levant operations in Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender crew chief exchanges farewells with a boom operator before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. KC-10s have contributed to more than 1,200 precision guided strikes against Da’esh and Levant operations in Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender crew members secure U.S. flags before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. The flag flying program allows service members to share U.S. flags flown in current operations as gifts or memorabilia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender crew members secure U.S. flags before flying a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. The flag flying program allows service members to share U.S. flags flown in current operations as gifts or memorabilia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after receiving fuel over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after receiving fuel over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

Two F-15E Strike Eagles prepare to receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-15s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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Two F-15E Strike Eagles prepare to receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-15s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An F-15E Strike Eagle disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after receiving fuel over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-15s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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An F-15E Strike Eagle disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after receiving fuel over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. F-15s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after a successful refueling over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Many pilots wore a traditional red “Santa” hat while flying on Christmas Day. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo | Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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An F-16 Fighting Falcon disconnects from a KC-10 Extender after a successful refueling over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Many pilots wore a traditional red “Santa” hat while flying on Christmas Day. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo | Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Many pilots wore a traditional red “Santa” hat while flying on Christmas Day. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo | Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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An F-16 Fighting Falcon receives fuel from a KC-10 Extender over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Many pilots wore a traditional red “Santa” hat while flying on Christmas Day. F-16s are providing precision guided close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant operations in the Middle East region and around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo | Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender boom operator Senior Airman Grant walks toward the cockpit after completing a preflight inspection in the boom pod at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW KC-10 boom operators have successfully offloaded fuel to more than 5,000 Coalition receivers in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve since Oct. 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender boom operator Senior Airman Grant walks toward the cockpit after completing a preflight inspection in the boom pod at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Dec. 25, 2016. 380 AEW KC-10 boom operators have successfully offloaded fuel to more than 5,000 Coalition receivers in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve since Oct. 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A KC-10 Extender oven is heated for a holiday meal during a sortie supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. During the flight, crew members ate pizza, pita bread, chocolate chip cookies and pita bread. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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A KC-10 Extender oven is heated for a holiday meal during a sortie supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. During the flight, crew members ate pizza, pita bread, chocolate chip cookies and pita bread. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender pilot, 1st Lt. Andrew, eats reheated pizza during a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Crew members used two small ovens to prepare their holiday meal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)
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A 380th Air Expeditionary Wing KC-10 Extender pilot, 1st Lt. Andrew, eats reheated pizza during a sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve over Iraq, Dec. 25, 2016. Crew members used two small ovens to prepare their holiday meal. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Tyler Woodward)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A fog peeled back slowly from the flight line. Four aircrew members emerged from a transit van sharing witty banter and a few cheerful words as they moved their flight equipment towards a nearby KC-10 Extender.

Holiday songs emitted from a Bluetooth speaker while the four aircrew members and two crew chiefs prepared for preflight inspections. A lieutenant cracked open a plastic container of care-package-cookies and passed them around.

Staff Sgt. Aaron, KC-10 flight engineer, shared what being a part of a small aircrew means to him. 

“It’s just the four of us; day in and day out, at all hours, they’re by your side. We laugh together, cry together, get mad at each other and at the end of every day we come together to find a way to make the mission work,” Aaron said.

“Just for the record,” KC-10 boom operator Senior Airman Grant laughed and pointed at Aaron. “He’s the only one who cries.”

The two crew members laughed and shook their heads.

When the KC-10 reached its position near Mosul, Iraq Senior Airman Grant was signaled to ready the boom-pod for refueling.

Breaking through a sea of white clouds, two F-16 Fighting Falcons emerged loaded with precision guided munitions. The Fighting Falcons were one of three Coalition aircraft refueled during the sortie; the refueling crew offloaded 108,000 pounds of fuel in total.

“Flying on Christmas day was good for us because every aircraft we offload fuel to is in some form supporting the guys on the ground – who are also missing their families,” KC-10 pilot Lt. Col. Danny said.  “The fight against terrorism is 24/7 and we have to maintain decisive airpower over the area of responsibility at all times, even on Christmas.”

While the KC-10 crew was flying near Mosul, Iraq, families all over the world gathered for holiday festivities. Food is one of the most cherished holiday traditions. However, at 30,000 feet, Christmas dinner had limitations. 

Two small metal ovens behind the cockpit served as the in-flight kitchen. Senior Airman Grant twisted the black knobs to 400 degrees and set the timers. Shortly after, the front of the aircraft blossomed with a scent of chocolate chip cookies and pizza.

“It’s funny, you know, we got pizza as opposed to being at home with friends and family at a big dinner. But, we make it fun,” Senior Airman Grant said. “It’s kind of cool to see everyone bring the holiday spirit up in the air. We see Santa hats up here and everybody is having fun all the while still executing and doing what we need to do.”

As the sun set on the world a warm glow softly covered the powdery clouds. The white Christmas day turned orange and then purple and then black. Panels of lights, knobs and gauges draped the cockpit like a finely lit tree.

The crew landed safely at their forward operating location and successfully completed another sortie in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.