EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Flying high above the bluish-green waters of Florida’s northwestern emerald coast, a March Air Reserve Base KC-135R Stratotanker, orbited and awaited its next customers — a pair of F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft.
Representing the 336th Aerial Refueling Squadron, 452d Air Mobility Wing, callsign: RATS 91, Team March aircrew members Lt. Col. Jeff Richenberger, pilot; 1st Lt. Kevin Elardo, copilot; and Tech. Sgt. Joe Parker, boom operator, flew in a series of aerial refueling training engagements with the initial cadre of F-35A Lightening II instructor pilots assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, May 12 to 18, 2013.
“The most rewarding part of participating in a mission like this is knowing that I am an active participant in the Air Force’s direct future,” said Parker. “This mission is a great representation of the tankers vital role, as it relates to air superiority.”
Observing from the boom operator’s pod in the rear of the aircraft, Parker skillfully identified a couple of specks in the distance, as a pair of fast-approaching, F-35 fighters. As accomplished many times in the past, Parker readied the boom and provided approach vectors to the incoming aircraft. He communicated with the fighter pilots and carefully guided their aircraft in for a precision contact and offload. Approximately 14 aerial refueling training sorties were flown during the week-long training phase.
“This was the easiest tanking event I have had in my career,” said Col. Andrew Toth, commander, 33rd Fighter Squadron. “The aircraft is very stable and smooth, making it easier than other weapons systems to connect with the boom.”
The 33rd FW is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. The crew of RATS 91 provided 33rd FW instructor pilots with the opportunity to train and qualify in real-time aerial refueling events, where as previously, the training was accomplished in the simulator. Fully qualified instructor pilots can now incorporate refueling training into future student-pilot classes, further enhancing mission capabilities.
“This mission was not necessarily any different or more challenging than others I have flown,” said Richenberger. “But, it’s not often you get to support initial test and evaluation of a new weapons system which will enhance the nations security, and that is rewarding.”