As a multipurpose fighter, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is a vital piece of air power for the United States and its allied nations, with its mere presence deterring enemy action, and capable of unleashing fury in and from the skies when needed.
But even with its massive ordnance, maneuvering abilities or the tactical skill-sets acquired by its pilots, bringing the fight to the enemy is not possible without the KC-135 Stratotanker, a cargo and transport aircraft that provides the precious military resource of fuel.
“When we think of air refueling, we think of that global reach a Stratotanker can project to further the fight,” said Capt. Jason Keltner, a KC-135 pilot from Phoenix Sky Harbor Air National Guard Base, home of the 161st Air Refueling Wing, which has adopted the appropriately informal title of “Copperheads.”
According to Keltner, providing that air bridge for multiple types of aircraft in various global theaters is a delicate aerial transaction.
“You’re trusting the Airman to fly 315 knots or better 20 feet away from you, and any kind of jolt can make the situation dangerous very quickly,” he said.
While many Air Force component jobs range from analyzing data from behind a desk, driving a forklift or sitting in a cockpit, Master Sgt. Vincent Jones, a boom operator for the Copperheads, lies on his stomach in a boom pod when he clocks in for the day. With his head positioned on a chin rest and hands on the boom flight control stick and other controls, Jones makes sure that contact is made between receiver and boom.
“Refueling a jet is the epitome of Air Force teamwork,” he said. “Our pilots are upfront doing their part, keeping the platform stable – on speed and altitude – and I am letting them know what’s going on in the back.”
On the opposite end of the team equation, Maj. Brad Balazs, an F-16 instructor pilot attached to the 152nd Fighter Squadron at the 162nd Wing in Tucson, said receiving gas is an exercise in instrument flying, coupled with collaborative efforts built on the understanding of what it takes to make sure the fuel flows.
“As the receiver aircraft, small and precise inputs are required to fly into the correct position,” Balazs said. “We expect the tanker to be on station and on time, ready to be able to plug into the jet and transfer gas. It just goes to show how skilled each of the participants in the whole process really are – to make it happen and get the job done.”
Balazs said that although student-pilots at the wing will always have enough gas to get back to station in the event that a boom can’t hook up to a jet, having an air refueling wing 120 miles north of an international F-16 schoolhouse does have its advantages.
“In training, extra gas will allow the student to accomplish a few more tactical tasks that may make the difference in them understanding the task completely or not,” he said. “We spend a good amount of fuel to get to the tanker; so if we don’t take gas, the student will not get the same amount of training as going straight to the airspace.”
“It’s an important skill to learn in the Viper because it has applicability on any mission we might fly,” Balazs said.
In addition to assisting the 162nd Wing to effectively execute its training mission, Stratotankers out of Sky Harbor Air National Guard Base have played prominent roles in humanitarian missions too: It was used for crucial transportation needs during Hurricane Katrina and recently, Copperheads provided air refueling support in a rescue mission involving Chinese sailors aboard a Venezuelan fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean.