TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
A KC-10 Extender manned by a crew from the 70th Air Refueling Squadron departed Travis Air Force Base, California, July 11, 2016, and traveled across the Atlantic to escort three F-35A Lightning II models back to the United States.
The fighters had just finished participating in the world’s largest airshow at Royal Air Force Station Fairford in Gloucestershire, England. The F-35s performed in a Heritage Flight and were displayed as static aircraft. Their arrival in Fairford marked the first transatlantic flight for the aircraft model.
Because of its location on the West Coast, Travis AFB is usually regarded as the “Gateway to the Pacific.” A mission across the Atlantic provided new and unfamiliar challenges to the crew. The flight route across the North Atlantic Tracks, or NATS, was a new structure of flight routes for the pilots.
“NATS is like a highway in the sky,” said 2nd Lt. Chris Riessen, 70th ARS copilot. “There are planes coming from Europe, planes coming from America, and (NATS) makes sure no one collides.”
Throughout the mission, which spanned from England to Washington D.C. to Arizona, the KC-10 Extender provided 10 aerial refuelings to each fighter. In summation that is approximately 125,000 pounds of fuel supplied to the fighters from the KC-10, according to Tech. Sgt. James Whittaker, 70 ARS boom operator.
Because the F-35A’s are built for stealth and speed, they carry a maximum fuel load of 18,000 pounds. This fuel capacity requires regular aerial refuelings from tankers to safely travel long distances. The A model, which is part of the Air Force fleet, requires a boom for refueling, whereas the Marine Corps B model and the Navy’s C model are refueled by a drogue. The KC-10 Extender is unique among other refueling platforms because it is capable of performing both types of refueling without modification.
But fuel was not the only support capability the tanker provided for the fighters. Thirty thousand pounds of F-35 cargo and 5,000 pounds of F-35 crew support passengers were transported in the KC-10 as well.
“As far as getting all your gear, getting all your gas, and getting all your people in one spot, the KC-10 definitely does it best,” Whittaker said. “You name it, we do it.”
Riessen finds this dual role mission to be the unique force multiplying capability for the Extender.
“The dual role aspect is one thing our airplane can do that no other airplane can do,” he said. “The KC-135 can fuel fighters and take them across the ocean, but our aircraft can fuel fighters and take cargo. That’s something that separates us from other aircraft.”
Once the KC-10 departed Fairford, the aircraft underwent aerial refueling from both ends. After completing one set of aerial refuels for each fighter, the KC-10 took on 90,000 pounds of fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker.
Every day, the flying crew chiefs are the first ones out to the jet, the last ones to leave, and are called upon to provide maintenance during the flight to keep the mission moving on time.
Minutes before take off from Joint Base Andrews, Washington D.C. to Luke AFB, Arizona, the KC-10 experienced a hard no-fly maintenance issue. Fail lights indicated that the EHSI (Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicators) were not working properly. EHSI is a digital platform essential for determining critical flight positioning information.
“We were able to make sure the KC-10 was able to complete the mission and stay on schedule by resetting the circuit breakers and fixing the (EHSI) problem,” said Senior Airman Nicholas Porter, 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief.
While the flight marked the return of the first F-35A transatlantic mission, it was a flight of firsts for many of the aircrew as well. Porter had never been on an Air Force mission to England. Riessen attained his title of copilot just hours before the mission started. First Lt. Justin Greenway, 70 ARS pilot, refueled F-35s for the first time in his career. Additionally, this mission was his qualifying flight for the role of aircraft commander.
There are 59 KC-10s left in the Air Force fleet; one-third of the fleet is at a deployed location at any given time, and the aircraft is expected to be phased out in the next 10 years. These limiting factors make every flight in the Extender a significant one for Greenway.
“Every time I fly in this airplane, I pinch myself because I can’t believe I’m flying a legacy, former wide-body airliner, and I’m refueling jets that are 15 feet from me,” he said. “I’m also on the receiving end, taking gas from aircraft that are 15 feet from me. To do that successfully is very rewarding.”
After dropping off the F-35A’s at their home station at Luke AFB, the KC-10 and crew returned to Travis AFB, mission complete.