There is a saying amongst tanker pilots that goes, “No one kicks ass without tanker gas.” Although you’d be hard pressed to find a fighter pilot who will admit they need help from anyone, every single one of us knows the importance of the JP-8 carried on those jets and the value of a good tanker crew in keeping the fighters where they need to be: airborne!
I will admit there have been times when I’ve egressed a fight pushing bingo fuel and have breathed a sigh of relief when I found the tanker on the near side of the track as if the tanker pilots had read my mind.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to ride on the KC-10 dragging some of my bros across the ocean. Sitting up front with the crew gave me a different perspective on all that goes on from the flight deck of a tanker.
The morning we departed the U.S. was an early one. We showed up at Base Ops at 2 AM to get a mission brief from the tanker planner. I paid attention to the AR (Air Refueling) plan for the fighters so I could back up my boys on their fuels and diverts in the event of a malfunction that would keep them from refueling.
Throughout the flight the tanker crew diligently calculated and re-calculated the fuel numbers to ensure there would be enough fuel for each fighter to reach our destination and make it to an alternate airfield if we ended up having to drag the fighters to a different base due to weather, runway closures, etc. Because we weren’t the only tanker involved in the plan, we had to coordinate closely with the tanker planner throughout the flight to ensure each piece of the air bridge was going to be in the right place at the right time or everyone would have to divert.
The crew did all of the navigation and communication for the entire package – they worked DIP (diplomatic) clearances, made all of the required reports at the oceanic reporting points, and did their best to help the fighters beat the relatively conservative fuel calculations. All of this work is transparent to those flying the fighters hanging out on the wing of the tanker.
As I sat in the jump seat watching my fellow fighter pilots fly in loose formation with the tanker, I longed to be in the seat of one of the “chicks in tow”. We all take turns doing ocean crossings – I had my turn before and would have my turn again soon.
I smiled to myself, got up, walked to the back of the KC-10, and put some chicken wings in the microwave. I was at least going to enjoy my freedom of movement while I could!
*Video by “Airboyd” shared from YouTube
**Photos public domain www.af.mil