Members of the 336th and 912th Air Refueling Squadrons fly air refueling missions that vary in distance, location, amount of fuel being dispensed and many other factors but the aircrews will tell you their missions are never routine and each presents its own challenges.
Recently, an aircrew flew a mission over the Pacific Ocean to provide fuel for the F-35, Joint Strike Fighter, the next generation advanced weapon system being procured for the Department of Defense and our nation’s allies. The March ARB KC-135 flew up to Edwards AFB for staging in support of the mission.
This was the first time this aircrew had the opportunity to support this mission so they didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know if there would be delays on the ground or other mission related problems. As it happened, communications with the JSF, the chase aircraft and instructions from various controlling agencies on where to be at certain times during the mission, presented some challenges to the crew but in the end the mission was a success.
This mission was unique in that it was flown to support advancements in technology and because of its location, was considered a local mission. As the aircraft commander for this mission reflects its part of the fun and excitement that comes with flying such unique and varied missions. It’s like putting your hand in a bowl and seeing what you choose. There’s something new and different every day, however.
“When someone has to go out there and fight the war, it’s us first,” said Maj. Steve Greenspan, Instructor Pilot with 336th ARS and Aircraft Commander for this mission. “We have to get out there and pre-position, either to drag the heavies over the water, bring the supplies, bring the personnel, med-o-vac out the wounded or conduct Coronet Missions.
“The KC-135 is probably one of the most flexible mission platforms we have out there.” Greenspan continued “Other than dropping bombs and shooting missiles, we can pretty much support any part of the mission, any point in time and in any place in the world.”
Since beginning to fly the KC-135 and becoming an instructor pilot, Greenspan has seen many different upgrades to the aircraft, through many different versions. He feels all of this has led to better situational awareness and a better platform in the sky that helps to keep everyone involved in the mission connected.
Former aircraft maintenance technician but now pilot, 1st Lt. Ronald Lee, graduated from pilot training and immediately began flying the KC-135. He hasn’t flown any other aircraft but reflected on what it’s like to fly the KC.
“It’s great because you get a lot more hand flying,” said Lee. “We joke in fun about the other guys (C-17 pilots), saying — you’re not a computer operator, you’re actually flying the airplane.” he attributes his skill set to all of the hands-on experience a KC-135 provides.
Greenspan is not the only pilot that has seen and experienced many of the changes. Lt. Col. Charles Assumma, commander of the 336th ARS says he was born and raised in the squadron. He began his career as a pilot volunteering for every sortie and flying with his “hair on fire” as he calls it.
Assumma has been commander for about two and a half years and admits that his perspective has changed a lot in his 25 years with the unit.
“Now I occupy the top leadership position in the squadron. I have moved through many levels of responsibility along the way”, says Assumma. “I can tell you that what it means to be a member of the best organization in the Air Force is a little different today than it was 25 years ago. I am so much more grateful today to have been given such a fantastic opportunity. I still can’t believe I get to wear this uniform.”
In December, 2010 the active duty 912th Air Refueling Squadron became an associate unit but in essence became an extension of the 336th ARS family.
“We fly what we call “purple crews,” said Assumma. “That means we have active duty and Reserve crew members on everything from local missions to missions down range. We don’t separate the missions into active or Reserve, we make total force integration work at the squadron level, and the 912th and 336th work so well together.”
The integration of active duty squadrons into a reserve environment has occurred Air Force wide and because the units at March have worked so well together the combination has been seen as a model for other units and that’s something to be proud of, adds Greenspan.
Boom operator Master Sgt. Mike Allen echoed comments made by Lt. Col. Assumma about how the two squadrons work so well together.
“We get along really good. If you look at associate squadrons, that may be the way of the future for survivability of the units,” said Allen. “And I think we’re making great headway on that point.”
The ratio between air refueling missions and those that are considered cargo or personnel transfer is approximately 70/30 according to Greenspan. But he adds that most missions are organic, where the crew takes with them their own equipment and crew chiefs.
“Military operations cannot be conducted without tanking support,” says Assumma. “Because we are a tanker unit, we get involved in every operation the Air Force supports. Since the Air Reserve Component has a majority of the tanker aircraft, we get involved in everything.”
Over the years the squadron has met all sorts of challenges and like other Air Force units, budgets have to be dealt with while in the midst of a high operations tempos.
“Though the environment we work in is difficult at times, nobody is complaining,” adds Assumma. “They understand that the mission comes first. This is the most mission oriented bunch I have ever seen. I think this squadron honestly has the right balance of service before self. They really do.”