MacDill tanker crews refuel military aircraft in fight against ISIS

 MacDill tanker crews refuel military aircraft in fight against ISIS

Settled into the cockpit, headed for the combat zone of Iraq, the three-man crew from MacDill Air Force Base can't wait to get in the air.

But wait they must.

Even after hours spent on the flight line at Al Udeid, preparing this KC-135 Stratotanker for another refueling mission, something has failed in the autopilot. Then the battery system.

"What the hell?" asks a ground-crew member as he swelters under a sun that rises at 4:30 a.m. here on the thumb-shaped peninsula of Qatar.

The problems are just hiccups, really, to be expected from a plane built in 1958 — decades before the members of this crew from MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing were born.

With their aerial booms and hoses, these old KC-135s help keep military planes in the air whenever their sorties take them more than a fuel tank away from carriers or bases on land.

They are one of MacDill's many ties to the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Others include the command that runs the campaign, U.S. Central Command, and the group that oversees commandos the world over, Special Operations Command.

ISIS is in its death throes as an occupying force, and the Iraqi prime minister is about to declare victory in the nine-month battle for Mosul. Still, on this day, July 1, there are bombs to be dropped and missiles to be fired as the Sunni jihadi group clings to its last pieces of territory in Syria and Iraq.

"There is no way you could do it without the gas," Air Force Maj. Gen David Nahom, deputy commander of the air war, told the Tampa Bay Times from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid. "We just don't have the basing up close. It's just incredible to watch the tanker mission."

There is something special, though, about today's flight. For the Air Force crew — pilots Maj. Brandon Strong and Capt. Steve Kemp, and Senior Airman Raphael Duncan, the boom operator — this is the last mission of a four-month deployment from MacDill.

It is a tricky time now, they say — keeping focus and resisting thoughts of lush sub-tropics back in Tampa Bay and the loved ones who are waiting for them there.

"Don't do anything dumb, dangerous or different," says Duncan, 26, the boomie, a short, solidly built Hawaiian native with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

Strong, the mission commander, also warns against last-mission complacency.

"Watch buffoonery," says the 33-year-old Dallas native, with the gravitas that comes from being a married father of five.

Shortly before 9 a.m., with everything finally working, the KC-135 — assigned call sign Python Zero-Six for this mission — takes off into a dusty haze.

In the steamy cockpit, Strong mops his face with his right hand and looks down at Al Udeid, an expanse of tan interrupted only by two long black stripes — runways each more than two miles long.

Strong goes over the day's assignment — fly to northern Iraq and give fuel to two Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jets, a Navy EA6 Prowler electronic warfare jet, and a fighter from one of the nations working in coalition with the United States.

But in a war zone, as they say in the military, a plan rarely survives first contact.

• • •

Aerial refueling missions like this start out the same way — a flight aboard a KC-135 from MacDill, to a base along the way for rest and refueling, and a day later, Qatar.

One recent flight, June 27, carried several crews from MacDill as well as civilian passengers, including two mothers and five kids headed to Europe to visit their husbands in the service.

With its four jet engines, the Boeing-made KC-135 resembles a Boeing 707 but was designed as a flying gas station, not a luxury liner. Still, the mission commander delays takeoff this day for some quick repair on the jet's broken toilet — not something he likely would have worried about if there were no children aboard.

The few racks in the back are prime spots for sleeping, as are the flat tops of plywood boxes holding luggage and goods bound for Qatar. An airman rests atop one of six large Yeti coolers filled with food donated by Mission BBQ in Brandon — enough to feed several hundred.

"It gets cold in here," says Tech. Sgt. Roger Braun, explaining why airmen seek the highest spots for stretching out. Heat rises.

The first, six-hour leg of the flight is marked by the recurring toilet problem and a tough landing in rain and crosswinds at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in England, established in the 1920s and now used by the U.S. military.

During the seven-hour flight from England to Qatar, Braun shows another way the crew copes with travel aboard jets that date to the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

"Watch this," he says, taking a foil-wrapped hotdog and inserting it into a so-called heat sock — a cloth tube that hangs from the plane's air duct to distribute warmth through the cabin. The flowing air heats the dog and in moments, Braun chows down.

"Mmmm, good stuff."

• • •

Once in the air, the first sign comes that things won't be going as planned for mission Python Zero-Six as the KC-135 crosses north into Iraqi airspace. Below is another featureless expanse, save for parallel irrigation canals.

The jet is headed to northern Iraq, near an ISIS last stand. Iraqi officials have said Mosul is liberated and so, too, are parts of Raqqa in Syria, what ISIS calls the capital of its caliphate.

"Python Zero-Six, ready to copy," says a voice with a Middle Eastern accent over a system shared by foreign partners.

The crew is told to expect an extra plane for refueling but they don't catch details, says Maj. Strong, serving his 10th deployment in 11 years with the Air Force, the last two years at MacDill.

Flying over a land long roiled by battle, the men of Python Zero-Six pay little attention to what takes place below.

"We can listen on a frequency," says Capt. Kemp, 33, a history buff from Baltimore who's serving his 11th deployment in 11 years with the Air Force. "I've done it before."

They are usually too busy, he says. But that's not to say they aren't curious.

"I read the news all the time to see what open source is saying," Maj. Strong says.

The Euphrates River comes into view. The snaking body of water has become a major demarcation point in the fight against ISIS, especially as the battle space shrinks and militaries and militias compete for the same piece of dirt.

The Russians recently threatened to shoot down aircraft west of the river in Syria after the United States downed a jet flown by their ally Syria — a warning that got attention from the KC-135 crews, as well as their families.

"That was a bold statement," Strong says. "It is definitely more tense. We don't fly into that hornet's nest but some of our shooter brothers definitely do."

The news hit harder back home, he says.

"My family was more concerned. My wife texted me. My parents texted me. My wife was concerned but we perform the mission and get the job done. We try to make it less than it is."

Adds Kemp, "My girlfriend said, 'You are going to come home now!' "

Over the radio, the crew hears the first in a series of disappointing updates.

"RTB, cancel," says the voice, meaning the Navy EA6 Prowler is returning to base and no longer needs fuel.

The next planned refueling is an hour away so the men take a deep breath and have a snack. Strong dips carrot sticks into peanut butter. Kemp spreads peanut butter and jelly onto two pieces of multigrain bread. Duncan, the senior airman, eats trail mix from a bag.

Twenty minutes later, more disappointing news on this final flight of the four-month deployment.

The A-10 Thunderbolts — nicknamed Warthogs, Hogs or Boars — will get fuel from another tanker.

"They stole our Hogs," Kemp grouses.

Then, some welcome news: A thirsty coalition fighter will be heading their way.

Then it isn't.

"I don't want to go out like this," Kemp says. "It's a big slap in the face."

"We have plenty of fuel," Strong says. "Please!"

• • •

Missions like Python Zero-Six only stay in the air because crews on the ground at Al Udeid work around the clock to keep them there.

Inside their two-story workspace on the air base flight line, a group of airmen — called maintainers — talk about the challenges of keeping these old jets flying in searing heat and blowing sand. Like the air crews, they are assigned for now to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, the Al Udeid host unit.

On a typical morning, the maintenance crews come in and check out the tools they will need, says Staff Sgt. Christopher Cook, 34. He's been in the Air Force seven years, the last six at MacDill. The crews start out with preflight inspections, like the one Python Zero-Six underwent.

"We look for a variety of stuff," Cook says. "We are looking for missing hardware. We make sure the paperwork is filed. We look over the airplanes' flaps, all the flight controls. We are just making sure everything is safe to fly, on every aircraft."

That can take three to four hours. When the planes return, the procedure is repeated.

"The heat plays a big factor with a lot of systems," says Staff Sgt. James Davis, 31, a communications and avionics systems maintainer who has been at MacDill for seven of his 7 1/2 years in the Air Force. Small onboard computers, communications and navigation systems all are subject to heat stress.

So are the crews who do the maintenance.

Portable units pump air conditioning inside the planes, but it doesn't always work.

"It gets pretty hot," Davis says. "The other day, it was 117 degrees outside. We had the thermometer out and it was 157 degrees in the back compartment."

How do the crews cope?

"We drink a lot of water and take breaks," he says. "You get down off the jet and 117 degrees really feels good."

• • •

The crew of Python Zero-Six learns they may end this deployment on a high note, after all.

They're getting the A-10 jets back.

But first, Strong has to calculate how much fuel he has left, considering he has been in the air for more than three hours.

"Python Zero-Six is frag to 40-Zero-40," Strong tells air traffic controllers, indicating he has 40,000 pounds of fuel left to offload.

A few minutes later, he recalculates and worries it might not be enough.

As they wait for a response, the pilots banter about the scenery and compare their duties to the work of a fighter pilot.

"We can move around," Kemp says. "We're not crammed in a little cockpit."

"We don't have to worry about the pickle packs," says Strong, speaking of how fighter pilots relieve themselves in flight.

Finally, the crew gets the word it has been waiting to hear: The A-10s need their fuel.

"Here come the Boars," says Duncan, working his way to the back of the plane.

Among its supporters, the A-10 is synonymous with survival. Its arrival on the battle field, flying low and slow and firing a 30mm cannon, is a welcome sight to ground troops. Enemies have trouble bringing it down. Congress resists attempts to scuttle its funding.

At the back of the KC-135, boomie Duncan climbs down a set of steps to the refueling pod and, as the pilots work to keep the old jet steady, eases himself face down behind a window at the control panels that operate the boom.

Settling in, he makes adjustments and scans the sky for one of the thirsty Hogs.

"There he is."

The two aircraft fly parallel over the battlefields of Iraq. Duncan extends the boom, a rigid, metal tube with a V-shaped winglet near the end to help guide it. An aerial dance is underway. The A-10 pilot deftly guides his plane up to the can-like nozzle at the end of the boom and moves his jet flawlessly into position.

With just 38 feet separating them, and fuel now flowing, Duncan and the A-10 pilot talk about going home.

"I'm from MacDill," Duncan says. "This is our last mission before heading back."

"I'm active duty from Davis-Monthan out of Tucson," the pilot says. "I've got three more weeks and we're out."

In just a few short minutes, the A-10 is fueled. The pilot pulls back and, with a grand flourish, peels off to the left at a sharp angle, weapons pods visible under the wing, showing that at least three already have been fired or dropped.

Duncan refuels the second A-10, and with a big smile, heads back to the cockpit.

Ground controllers have two more jets that need fuel to resume the fight, both coalition fighters whose nationality the United States keeps secret under international agreement.

Strong calculates that he has just enough fuel to get the job done.

This time, instead of using the boom, the jets will get their fuel from flexible hoses that are released to drift from a pod under each of the tanker's wings.

The first jet approaches and misses the mark.

"He overshot us," Duncan says.

So the pilot swings back and links up. Unlike with the A-10s, this fill-up is excruciatingly slow.

Four minutes turn into 10, which turn into 15. then 20. One down. Another 15 minutes and the second plane is refueled.

"And that is a deployment," Kemp says over the radio.

Back in the boom pod, Duncan exclaims, "Sweet!"

Pentagon records show that on this day, there are 22 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, destroying ISIS buildings, oil tanks, sniper nests, dozens of vehicles and many other targets.

• • •

On their way home to MacDill, the KC-135 crew has a two-day layover at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. After months of tan hues and brutal temperatures, they marvel at the green, tree-covered hills and brisk air.

On July 5, Strong, Kemp, Duncan and other returning 6th Air Mobility Wing airmen arrive to a hero's welcome at MacDill.

As crews unload the plane, Strong huddles with his family for shade under the nose of his KC-135 before heading out for their traditional homecoming meal at Chipotle.

"Hugs and kisses from the wife and kids," Strong says, "make you appreciate what you have."