Arizona Air Guard keeps NATO flying

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gabe Johnson
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing
Arizona Airmen and tankers are flying with NATO E-3A Sentry aircraft and aircrews this month to fine tune the in-flight skills needed to pass fuel from KC-135 Stratotankers to the relatively large surveillance aircraft.

More than 20 pilots, boom operators, maintainers, and support experts, along with two tankers from the Phoenix-based 161st Air Refueling Wing, are fulfilling their annual commitment here, Nov. 9-20, to train with NATO's Airborne Warning and Control Systems - or AWACS.

For more than two decades NATO and the Air National Guard's robust tanker community have maintained a continuous partnership to support aircrew training. Every year, Air Guard refueling wings from across the United States cycle through Geilenkirchen Air Base, also known as "GK."

"We're here to train with NATO aircrews so we can all improve and get better at what we do," said Capt. Britton Bates, a five-year tanker pilot from Mesa, Arizona. "But just as important, we're maintaining positive international relationships and a common ground with the other countries that are here."

Bates and his crew flew the first sortie of the training period Nov. 10. After mission planning, weather brief and pre-flight procedures, Bates' crew took off for northern Germany to rendezvous with a multi-national crew aboard an E-3A.

In under an hour, the KC-135 offloaded 40,000 pounds of gas over multiple contacts with its sole receiver. After each successful connection, the E-3A moved back to a starting position, switched pilots and approached for additional contacts to maximize training.

Each connection was a delicate dance orchestrated by Staff Sgt. Kevin Gimenez, the tanker's boom operator, who from the aft window and boom controls called out instructions and updates to pilots in both aircraft.

"Forty feet coming in low," Gimenez radioed. "A little left. Twenty feet. Ten feet. Contact. You are taking gas."

He often reassured, "Aircraft is steady," while the tanker and E-3 were connected.

"With a large aircraft, like the E-3, I have to communicate frequently; every few seconds. The bow wave effect is more of a factor with heavies than with fighters," Gimenez said referring to the turbulence created between a large receiver and a KC-135. Slight adjustments to the tanker's trim alleviated the bow wave and ensured level flight.

"It's never exactly the same," said Bates. "It's kind of a puzzle that we have to figure out each time we fly, and there are always different ways to rendezvous with receivers. It's one of my favorite aspects of the air refueling mission."

It's a mission that gives Air Guard members yet another opportunity to impact global operations.

The E-3A AWACS gives commanders a broad surveillance capability. The radar dish, or roto dome, spinning atop the aircraft offers friendly forces a god's eye view of the airspace for up to 400 kilometers away. Aircrew aboard can also act as air controllers, directing friendly fighters and bombers to specific targets.

"We can also be a relay station," said Royal Netherlands Air Force Capt. André Bongers, a NATO public affairs officer. "We can transfer information from ground stations to other units far away. Because we are flying so high, we can relay between operators when mountains or other geographical features may normally get in the way."

In all, the E-3 carries about 20 aircrew members on board; pilots, an engineer, communications technicians, systems experts, surveillance monitors and weapons controllers to name a few.

"The E-3 AWACS stationed here often operate along the NATO border which means relatively long flying times," said Bongers. "To get the most from our mission, it is very important to do air refueling to stay in flight longer. With air refueling in Afghanistan, for example, we could extend our mission up to 18 hours. In Europe, air refueling can help us extend our missions up to 11, or 11 and a half, hours. This makes air refueling training so important for us."

"Our relationship with the Air National Guard is a long-lasting relationship;" said Bongers, "one we look forward to for a very long time."