Air mobility in Iraq: Air refueling set tone for air ops for start of OIF

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Whether it was a KC-135 Stratotanker or a KC-10 Extender, Air Mobility Command's air refueling aircraft played a key role at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to AMC history.

Nearly nine years ago, on March 19, 2003, OIF kicked off with what many people termed a "shock and awe" air campaign. The campaign included fighters and bombers from the Air Force, Navy and coalition forces hitting key targets against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

Keeping those fighter aircraft in the fight at the start of OIF were aircrews flying the KC-135s and KC-10s. In the 2009 AMC History Office publication, "Air Refueling: Without Tankers, We Cannot...," several missions for the opening OIF air campaign are highlighted.

"On the first mission, KC-135s refueled two F-117 Nighthawks and five support aircraft on the way to their targets and then the F-117s on their way back," the publications states. "Other tankers played a critical role in the 33-hour B-2A Spirit bombing missions from Whiteman Air Force Base (Mo.)."

The publication also highlights efforts of AMC wings for the beginning of OIF.

"The 319th Air Refueling Wing (of Grand Forks AFB, N.D.) deployed 10 KC-135Rs fitted with the Multi-Point Refueling System - the wing-mounted hose and drogue pods. This system allowed the KC-135s to support all aircraft including U.S. Navy and coalition probe-equipped planes," according to the publication.

"As the threat subsided, the tankers moved into the combat area. At one point, a 22nd Air Refueling Wing KC-135R (from McConnell AFB, Kan.) flew over Tikrit, Iraq -- one of the most heavily defended and dangerous cities in theater -- to support six aircraft involved in a search and rescue mission for a downed F-15E Strike Eagle crew."

Six months into OIF, tanker Airmen and aircraft were stationed at non-disclosed bases throughout Southwest Asia. At the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, part of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, they had "teamwork went beyond that of one unit" in combining assets of five KC-135R Stratotanker units.

The director of operations for the 340th EARS in October 2003, Maj. Eric Brumskill from Grand Forks AFB said combining people and planes from the 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill AFB, Fla.; 319th ARW of Grand Forks AFB; 22nd ARW of McConnell AFB; 19th Air Refueling Group of Robins AFB, Ga.; and the 92nd ARW of Fairchild AFB, Wash., worked out well to meet the OIF mission requirements.

"Having so many units under a commander from one unit and having the director of operations from another unit can be a challenge," said Brumskill, who is now a lieutenant colonel with the 96th Air Refueling Squadron at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. "There are always issues with deployed members and home units that must give their inputs about their people. The challenge is finding the right belly button to push to make things happen with no familiarity. Overall, the crews and staff (were) nothing but professional, and truly exemplify 'one team -- one fight.'"

Maj. Joel Rivard, who was a captain and KC-135 pilot deployed from Grand Forks AFB in 2003, also highlighted the 340th EARS success early on for OIF.

"We had people and planes from different bases deployed here and except for different faces, it was pretty seamless," said Rivard, who is now stationed in RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom. "We all come from the same schoolhouse (at Altus AFB, Okla.), so we're all working off the same sheet of music. Yes, there are some differences from base to base, but they're minor. Tanker folks all get along very well with one another so we all started off as friends from the beginning."

While the 340th EARS was comprised of KC-135s, the 908th EARS at another Southwest Asia base was formed mainly of KC-10s which also supported OIF air refueling support. The 908th EARS was initially established in 2001 to support Operation Enduring Freedom, but also picked up support OIF in 2003, history shows.

Capt. Sean Flynn, a KC-10 pilot deployed from the Air Force Reserve's 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., who deployed to the 908th EARS in 2010, said supporting the air refueling operations for OIF or elsewhere was what "kept the mission going."

"With the constant supply of tanker gas, we can enable our fellow service members on the ground and in the air to continue to do their mission. We often fly long hours and in extreme weather conditions," Flynn said. "You really see the big picture while working in the area of responsibility. It takes everyone from the base support staff, to the bus drivers, to the maintainers to help get us to the end result which is a successful mission in which we can deliver well needed gas to help the fight."

In the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as was the case for many air operations in the Air Force's history, air refueling was key to success. Alexander Wathen, a military defense analyst with the Airpower Research Institute and the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education at Maxwell AFB, Ala., highlighted that fact in his October 2005 article for the Air and Space Power Journal.

Wathen's article, entitled, "The Miracle of Operation Iraqi Freedom Airspace Management," explained the extensiveness of the early Iraq air campaign.

"The air campaign that danced over Iraq was an intricate ballet conceptualized, designed and executed by the men and women of the Combined Air Operations Center," Wathen wrote. "In all, 1,801 total aircraft flew 41,404 sorties in a 720-hour period between (March) 19 and (April) 18, 2003."

Wathen may have also best defined the importance of air refueling for OIF through his explanation of the acronym -- NKAWTG.

"The tanker crew saying, 'Nobody kicks a-- without tanker gas,' was never truer than in OIF. One of the biggest factors to consider in designing the airspace is the large amount and layout of the airspace to be dedicated to air refueling. Most of the 1,800 aircraft supporting OIF flew missions covering great distances and required long loiter times over their targets, requiring more fuel than their internal fuel tanks would allow, and necessitating air refueling."

(Note: This is the second article in a series of nine stories highlighting the contributions of mobility Airmen during nearly nine years of operations in Iraq through Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. The AMC History Office contributed to this article.)