AL UDEID AIR BASE, QATAR –
Heat haze rippled behind the tails of three F-16 Fighting Falcons as they taxied toward the maintenance and logistics Airmen awaiting them on the flight line of Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, on Nov. 10, 2020.
Aircrew from the 77th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed to Prince Sultan AB, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, trained for a week with members of the 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Group and the 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron on hot refueling.
“Hot-pit refueling is refueling an aircraft with one or more engines running,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Frederick Jackson, the 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander. “The process significantly increases the survivability of the platform by increasing reliability and speed during the aircraft regeneration process.”
Training with the 77th EFS team is just the latest phase in developing Al Udeid AB’s 24/7 hot refueling operational capability; an agile capability that enhances U.S. and coalition aircraft operations and response times throughout U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Al Udeid Airmen have recently serviced F-16s, F-18 Super Hornets, and a U.S. Navy MH-60 Seahawk helicopter, but broke new ground when they became certified to hot refuel the KC-135 Stratotanker on Sept. 21, 2020.
Jackson said the historic moment felt like a victory for all involved.
“Watching maintenance, operations, logistics and engineering [personnel] smiling, fist bumping and chest pounding once the hot refuel was completed safely was one of the highlights of my career,” he said.
Hot refueling the KC-135 means increased reliability of the aircraft in a combat environment, as it maintains clean electrical power and a steady air flow to restart the other engines should one be damaged.
KC-135s can now move with agility to any airfield in theater and refuel before immediately taking off to fulfill the next mission.
“The team came together, identified a warfighter requirement and developed a plan to get these procedures through the system, in what could easily have taken a year… we did it in 60 days,” said Jackson.
He said the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” article was perfectly-timed.
“We used this as a mantra, opening up teleconferences with the words, and it helped set the pace to get this done,” said Jackson. “When squadron-level teams know the CSAF has our back, doors start to open to make real change.”
He emphasized the collaborative nature of what it took for the squadrons involved to reach this milestone.
“Through the entire process, everyone had each other’s backs,” said Jackson. “We practiced together, we checked each other and then we made history happen.”
Jackson tasked Tech. Sgt. Trevor Naismith, a crew chief assigned to the 379th EAMXS, to research the feasibility of hot refueling a KC-135.
“We worked with agencies across Al Udeid AB, collecting data for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the KC-135 System Program Office, requesting to validate and verify a hot refuel,” said Naismith.
Naismith applied his prior experience as an instructor for the Air Education and Training Command to develop and execute a training plan.
“It was daunting at first,” he said. “Being part of a team to redefine KC-135 tactics, techniques and procedures in response to the global strategic environment is not something that gets dropped in your lap often.”
He said that initial fear transformed into inspiration as he developed a three-phase training program for both EAMXS and ELRS Airmen. The phases included familiarization with the technique, a simulated hot refuel evaluation and a supervised live hot refuel certification.
Naismith said he and his team have been fortunate to combine their training with real mission impact.
“Seeing the maintenance effort and our product speak for itself, taking off from the runway, has been the most gratifying experience in my Air Force career,” he said.
Through planning, training and implementation of the KC-135 hot refueling program, safety was paramount.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jason Clark, a quality assurance inspector assigned to the 379th EMXG, said all three phases were thoroughly discussed and rehearsed prior to any action.
Each hot fueling site had a dedicated supervisor as well as the required fire response team. An Airman was assigned to man the fire bottle at each site, ready to respond if required.
They maintained constant communication with airfield management and the maintenance operations team, who could expeditiously direct rapid response teams as needed.
Clark said the most important safety measure implemented was to ensure that Airmen with many years of on-aircraft experience and high maintenance acumen participated.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Weaver, who has deployed six times and is currently assigned to the fuels management flight, said that most of his refueling experience is in hot refueling.
“Hot-pit refueling is a standard practice across the career field,” he said. “But every operation can vary depending on the location and the airframe. Each has its own training requirements and unique emergency procedures that all members need to be familiar with.”
While Weaver had prior experience with hot refueling, many of his Airmen are encountering it for the first time on this deployment.
“At this time, 70 percent of those Airmen are now currently trained and qualified on multiple aircraft,” said Weaver. “We have people here willing to try something they have never done before. They are excited to get after the mission and bring the motivation to push harder every day.”
Clark said the team members keyed in on performing their individual tasks, which allowed for leadership to focus on overall safety and operations.
“In a word, they were outstanding,” he said. “Overall, I am very pleased with the product that I and countless others have helped create. We have implemented a process that is safe, effective and keeps the KC-135 a key piece in the success of any mission the Air Force may have.”