An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Nordic Response ’24: Niagara Reservists prove they can thrive in harsh arctic climates

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Caya

For two weeks in March, Citizen Airmen from the 914th Air Refueling Wing, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, New York, sharpened their skills in harsh arctic climates and mountainous terrains during Exercise Nordic Response ’24 – a Norwegian-led NATO military exercise held every other year.

The exercise provided great training opportunities for the Reservists who operate the wing’s KC-135 Stratotankers as well as those who maintain them. 

“Exercises like Nordic Response are large-scale NATO operations,” said Finland Air Force Maj. Anssi “Commando” Nieminen, flight commander for fighter squadron 11. “We can show the world we can operate in large-scale exercises with the West, and tankers are true force-multipliers.”

When people think of the KC-135 Stratotanker, they may think of the long rigid boom on the tail. However, there is a second way for the Stratotanker to refuel aircraft high above the area of operations.

Probe-drogue refueling involves coupling a probe on a receiver aircraft with a probe receptacle, the drogue, attached to a flexible, fuel hose from the tanker aircraft.

Master Sgt. Corey Palmer, a boom operator with the 914th ARW, said he welcomed the prospect of utilizing the drogue during NR24.

“It’s a nice opportunity to do something different than a regular boom contact refueling – which is what we do routinely back home,” said Palmer. “A lot of our allies are not equipped to do boom air refueling, so this opens up an array of aircraft to us,” he said.

Allies in the Nordic countries have many aircraft platforms such as the JAS 39 Gripen and F/A-18 Hornet variants that can only receive fuel from the drogue, said Nieminen. “It’s a big deal to have a tanker with a drogue here. It’s a true enabler for us to operate in big exercises and scenarios, like here in Nordic Response,” he said “Without the drogue we couldn’t fulfill our missions and larger-scale operations.”

The ability to change from boom to drogue is paramount to interoperability within ally nations during NR24. Like all airborne operations, maintenance Airmen are key. On the ground, maintenance Airmen swap out parts that allow the drogue to connect to the boom.

“All the maintainers are professionals at doing their job,” said Nieminen. “The capability to change from the boom to the drogue on the tanker; it’s amazing how fast they are able to do that.”

The KC-135 with the drogue configuration is crucial for countries in the High North.

“We do not have a tanker in Finland, so we use the American KC-135 to train in Finnish airspace. It’s the tanker that most of the Finnish pilots start refueling with,” said Nieminen “We have so many aircraft in the inventory that take the drogue that it is a ‘must-have’ for Allied operations. It’s a true force-multiplier in allied operations and general deterrence as we can stay airborne for a long time and respond to short-notice missions.”

According to both Nieminen and Palmer, it takes less than 10 minutes to refuel most aircraft that take the drogue, meaning the fighters can rapidly return to the battlespace and enforce deterrence.

“The KC-135 has been flying forever…to have it capable with the boom and the drogue, it’s capable of refueling any aircraft and I think that’s important for our adversaries to realize,” said Palmer. “There is unlimited capability with the tanker. We are flexible and adaptable to refuel pretty much any aircraft.”

Throughout NR24, Airmen from the 914th Maintenance Group were put to the test, and they overcame numerous challenges.

“This exercise specifically has tested us in regards to what we can all accomplish,” said Master Sgt. Anthony Lewandowski, 914th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron airframe and powerplant general flight chief. “We landed here without requested support equipment and we had to make it work during a time when we were very low on resources,” he added.

The Swedish Air Force stepped in to assist with the issues.

“The Swedish Air Force has been a phenomenal partner with us,” said Lewandowski, “They were able to obtain support equipment for our maintenance mission. However, the equipment was just different enough from our requirements,” he added. “Despite that hitch, the Swedes were able to guide us in their community to obtain parts and pieces for us to get the mission done.”

After facing the hurdle of finding required equipment, the maintainers needed to do some heavy maintenance on the Stratotanker because an engine’s exhaust temperature was not reading on a flight-deck display.

“This is not the kind of maintenance you want to do on the road,” said Lewandowski. “However, it’s been awesome to be tested with limited resources. Our Airmen are multi-Air Force Specialty Coded, so they have been tested on their specialties.”

The Airmen troubleshot the engine issue throughout the day, took time to install a drogue refueling system on the boom so the tanker could refuel U.S. Marine aircraft, and then went back to resolving the engine issue. The situation allowed them to combine their technical and practical savvy for a solution, according to a maintainer.

“There’s a lot in the job which can get technical and boring, such as pouring over manuals and wiring diagrams,” said Tech. Sgt. Connor Hennessy, 914th AMXS avionics technician. “This issue allowed us to use our brain and troubleshoot in the moment – and it’s fun because it’s a good way to learn.” said Hennessy. “We swapped wiring between engines to pinpoint the malfunction and were able to reset the system,” he added.

The maintainers worked late into the night with the temperature hovering near the single digits. However, the environment was not a hindrance for the Reservists.

“It’s business as usual for us,” said 914th AMXS Senior Enlisted Leader Chief Master Sgt. Jenn Hilton. “Our Niagara Airmen are very experienced in dealing with cold weather operations, so it’s not a distraction for them, as opposed to other units.”

After they were in agreement on the fix, the maintainers were able to successfully execute an engine run with no issues, therefore greenlighting the aircraft to fly a refueling mission the next day.

NR24 has been the cold weather training that the Reservists thrive in, said Hilton. “We always go into exercises expecting to be stressed and tested; these guys have stood up to every challenge that the exercise and aircraft has thrown at them and they’ve mostly done it with a smile on their face,” she added.

“It’s been incredible what we can do with a small amount of people, with little equipment in sub-freezing temperatures,” said Lewandowski. “You get to see what they can accomplish working safely to make the mission happen,” he added.

The efforts of the 914th AMXS have allowed the U.S. aircraft to fly and provide aerial refueling to allied and joint aircraft during NR24.

“We’ve participated in exercises in the past, but this is definitely a first for us as it encompasses a good majority of NATO countries,” said Lewandowski. “Being a part of a large, joint exercise like this is definitely something special, and to be the ones from America as part of it, that’s pretty awesome.”

(Caya is assigned to the 914th Air Refueling Wing public affairs office.)