Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Student pilots reach course milestone: airborne refueling

by Capt. Stacie N. Shafran, 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. (AFNS) -- Nearly 18,000 feet above Southern Arizona's desert landscape, students in the A-10C Pilot Initial Qualification Course here completed their first air-to-air refueling mission during the week of April 26.

Twelve pilots from the 358th Fighter Squadron and 13 from the 357th FS are enrolled in the six-and-a-half month course.

Upon graduation in August, they will be fully trained A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots skilled in instrument flying, basic fighter maneuvers, basic surface-attack tactics and close-air support procedures.

The A-10C is an advanced version of the basic A-10, having received the most significant modifications in the airframe's 30-year history. Modifications include full integration of sensors, enhanced communication capabilities and cockpit upgrades including multi-functional color displays and a new hands-on-throttle-and-stick interface that increase situational awareness for the pilot and the ability to perform most tasks without removing his or her hands from the throttle or stick.

In order to attain proficiency in the various A-10 missions, 355th Fighter Wing personnel maintain a fleet of almost 90 A-10s that make up three squadrons. The 357th FS and 358th FS are both formal training units, while the 354th FS is one of only five active-duty operational squadrons, ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

One of the tasks required for graduation is air-to-air refueling.

For 1st Lt. Daniel Griffin, a student assigned to the 358th FS, refueling for the first time was one of the things he looked forward to during the program. Prior to the flight, he practiced in a simulator, studied pictures showing what refueling should look like and learned all he could from the experienced pilots in his squadron, including his assigned instructor pilot, Capt. Jason Bartels.

"Prior to my first refueling flight I was very nervous, but we prepared a lot," said Lieutenant Griffin, who flew the A-10C for the first time March 24. "The thing I was most nervous about was not being able to connect with the tanker and having trouble flying smoothly up to the connection from the astern position."

To complete the air-to-air refueling mission, the students, along with their instructor pilots, launched from Davis-Monthan's runway and flew to the Tombstone Military Operating Area over Southern Arizona where they rendezvoused with a KC-135 Stratotanker. The tanker and its crew were from the Kansas Air National Guard's 117th Air Refueling Squadron based out of Forbes Field, Kan.

Refueling is essential to an A-10's wartime mission. It is a force enabler, which allows the aircraft to stay aloft in an overwatch position almost indefinitely, protecting U.S. and coalition servicemembers.

Upon graduation, the pilots will be ready to support the wartime mission, which can require multiple refuelings over the course of an eight-hour mission.

To demonstrate proficiency, students needed to successfully hook up with the tanker and take on fuel from the boom for approximately two minutes. They repeated this process twice, receiving a total of 2,000 pounds of gas.

While airborne, the A-10 pilots connected to the KC-135 via a boom and receptacle system. This system uses a rigid, telescoping tube that an in-flight refueling specialist, also known as the boom operator, inserts into a receptacle on the topside of the A-10's nose.

If all of this sounds challenging, it is, according to the course instructors.

"It would be equivalent to you driving down the road, next to another car, both windows rolled down," said Capt. Jason Bartels, 358th FS instructor pilot and Lieutenant Griffin's assigned IP. "The person in the passing lane is staring at (your) car without looking down the highway and maintaining his lane, and then passing objects between the two cars while you're traveling down the road at 70 mph."

While approaching the boom, the students used visual references to position their aircraft, and they also received guidance from both the boom operator and instructor pilot via radio.

"When I was under the boom it was really exciting," Lieutenant Griffin. "I talked myself through the process and at the same time my instructor was talking me through it. When I finally connected it was a lot easier than I thought it would be because once the boom connects it kind of holds on to the A-10 a little bit. You can gauge where you are, not only by the boom operator telling ... but there are colors on the boom that tell you how far you are out, and on the belly of the tanker there are some indicator lights."

Capt. Jeanie Moughan, wife of Capt. Pete Moughan, a student assigned to the 358th FS, flew aboard the tanker April 27 to learn more about the refueling mission. She also had the unique opportunity to not only watch her husband fly, but also to watch him refuel for the first time.

"I was excited and proud of him," she said. "All I have been able to see, prior to this mission, was him taxi on the runway and takeoff, so it was really cool to see him in the air and hear him on the radio."

She said her husband spent the night before practicing for the mission by "chair flying" in their kitchen.

While listening to him on the radio during the actual refueling, she could hear his breathing intensify as he flew up to the boom.

"I could see and hear that he was nervous," she said with a smile. "They're all perfectionists and want to get it right."

Between now and graduation the students will fire the A-10C's 30 mm GAU-8/A seven-barrel Gatling gun, air-to-air refuel at night and work with joint terminal attack controllers during a simulated combat situation.