Every year, several KC-135R's of the United States Air Force Air National Guard (USAF ANG) are deployed at Geilenkirchen air base, Germany. Their job is to train the crews of NATO E-3A in aerial refueling skills. On 29th July we joined the crew of one of the KC-135Rs for a first-hand experience of the delicate work of aerial refueling at an high-altitude office.


The NATO Airborne Early Warning & Control Force (NAEW&CF) forms a large part of the eyes and ears of the NATO forces. It was founded in 1980 and activated in 1982 at Geilenkirchen AB. Of the 26 NATO countries, sixteen participate in the NAEW&CF of which fourteen supply military personnel for the operational units. The operational part of the NAEW&CF consists of two units: the NATO E-3A Component and the Royal Air Force (RAF) E-3D Component. The RAF E-3D Component is based at RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom, with seven aircraft. The E-3A Component at Geilenkirchen operates seventeen E-3As and three CT-49A TCAs (Training and Cargo Aircraft). The CT-49As are used for three purposes: future-E-3-pilot training, cargo transport and personnel transport. For aerial refueling, the pilots have to train with the E-3A itself because the CT-49A is not equipped to do so.

USAF ANG deployments

The major advantage of aerial refueling is the tremendous extension of mission length for the receiving aircraft. In the near future, the E-3A Component will even support the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, so a well-trained E-3-crew is essential. Because NATO is not self-sufficient in its refueling needs, it rents the capacity from members within the alliance. NATO and the National Guard Bureau have an agreement, already lasting fifteen years, which states that the USAF ANG trains E-3-crews in aerial refueling during training missions. Each year, about twenty ANG squadrons are deployed at Geilenkirchen AB for a period of two weeks. At the beginning of the fiscal year (October 1st) the National Guard Bureau makes a planning for the rotations of the ANG-squadrons for the upcoming year. Each deployment usually brings two KC-135s, together with a group of pilots and around 35 operations and maintenance airmen as support for a two- to three-week deployment. The logistics and support for every KC-135-deployment at Geilenkirchen AB are provided by the ANG Liaison Officer (ANGLO). The ANGLO is a three-year job and is currently in the hands of Lt.Col. David McKinney.

From 27th July until 7th August 2009, the 191st ARS of the Utah Air National Guard was deployed at Geilenkirchen AB. This unit currently operates seven KC-135Rs out of Salt Lake City International Airport and belongs to the 151st ARW. The deployment consisted of two KC-135s, which arrived at Geilenkirchen AB on 27th July as Utah61 (58-0027) and Utah62 (62-3504). The last mentioned departed from Geilenkirchen AB on the 31st of July and was replaced on the 3rd August by the 58-0114, arriving as Reach427.On the 7th of August, the 58-0227 and the 58-0114 both departed with the same call signs they had during their arrival.

The mission

In the early morning of 29th July 2009, we reported at the main gate of Geilenkirchen AB. After the necessary paperwork we drove to the ANG-facility, located near the eastern part of the ramp. After a short safety briefing by the ANGLO, we teamed up with the 151st ARW Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and her colleagues. Since today's mission for 62-3504 was cancelled due to technical difficulties, 57-0027 was our designated aircraft for that day. Inside the aircraft, we met the crew who was already working on the pre-flight checklist. So, enough time for us to check out the aircraft itself. In the cockpit we found five seats: three standard crew seats and two jump seats. The large cargo bay was almost completely empty, with benches on the side and various rollers on the floor to easily move cargo in and out the plane. In the rear of the aircraft we found the 'office' of the boom operator. Here, the boom operator lies on his belly during refueling. In front of him is a large window and a mirror for navigation purposes, with two mini-windows left and right of it. Just beneath the main window are the two joysticks and several switches located, controlling the boom and fuel transfer. For some comfort, there is a small cushion covered pod, where the boom operator can rest his chin on. When no refueling is being done, the outer metal hatch in front of the window is closed.

During take-off one of us took place inside the cockpit. The other one would be in the cockpit during landing. Through an additional headset, it was possible to follow the complete start-up/landing sequences and run down of various checklists. As 'Esso75', the pilot reported to the tower and requested taxi approval, followed by take-off clearance when we eventually were lined up at the runway. After take-off from runway 27, we climbed out in northerly direction. We set course for the track that is especially reserved for air-to-air refueling and training: the Kim Long Track. This track is located in the northern part of Germany, at flight level 290 (29,000 feet) and has a length of 294 NM long (see map).

Shortly after entering the track, our first receiver contacted us as NATO06. The NATO E-3A met us in the northern part of the track. A few minutes later, the 'AWACS' (LX-N90446) was about thirty meters behind us and ready for its first connection. From this moment on, the boom operator more or less controls the KC-135-tanker. The pilots have to take several directions from the boom operator to keep the aircraft steady and on course, so refueling will not cause any problems. The connection went very smooth and the first pounds of fuel were transferred. While flying around Mach .8 through the track, NATO06 practised its connects and disconnects for about an hour. In total, 25,000 pounds of fuel were transferred during this hour. After the LX-N90446 disconnected for the last time, it backed up slowly and continued its mission elsewhere.

Because we had to wait for about thirty minutes for the next receiver, Tsgt Tony Kalakis explained us about controlling the boom with the joysticks. The right one controls the horizontal and vertical movement of the boom, while the left one controls the length of the inner hose. We both had the opportunity to operate the boom ourselves. The rest of the available controls are mainly switches which handle the fuel-offloading. About 10 minutes later, NATO15 (LX-N90444) was ready for its initial refueling approach. This receiver performed the same training routine with several connects and disconnects, while it received an equal amount of fuel as the previous E-3A. About an hour later it cleared from us. It was time to head back to Geilenkirchen AB, where we smoothly touched down nearly half an hour later.

We would like to thank all the people of the 191st ARS, especially Lt.Col. B. Badali, 1st Lt. Dave Geerdes and Tsgt. Tony Kalakis (KC-135-crew), Maj. Krista DeAngelis (151st ARW PAO) and Lt.Col David McKinney (ANGLO) for making it possible to write this article from a first-hand experience.

This article was published in Scramble magazine issue 364 (September 2009)