KC-135's support NATO E-3A AWACS
alongside the E-3A AWACS, with their characteristic rotating
antennae mounted on the upper side of the fuselage, at the
Geilenkirchen NATO air base near Aachen are other members
of the Boeing-707 family. Three of the four-engined aircraft
are used for pilot training and, if required, can also be
used to transport passengers and cargo to forward bases. At
the east end of the apron two KC-135 tankers are usually to
be seen. “We are expected to provide aircraft 44 weeks a year,”
explains Rick Keasey, who is the US Air National Guard (ANG)'s
full-time representative at NATO's E-3A unit.
foreign military sales contract with the ANG has been in existence
for over 15 years. The Alliance currently purchases 850 flying
hours per year for Geilenkirchen from the Guard Bureau in
Washington, “and another 100 to support the British E-3D component
in Waddington,” adds Keasey, who in his present post has the
rank of a Lieutenant Colonel. After consulting with the E-3A
unit, the liaison officer, who previously served at the 126th
Air Refueling Wing at Scott AFB in Illinois, forwards the
requirement for the following year to Washington every July.
There a planning conference is held for the tanker units in
August – this is quite important for the US armed forces overall,
as half of all the KC-135's – 250 aircraft – are operated
by the Guard.
ANG has not escaped the impact of base realignment
and closure (BRAC) over the last few years, so that
today there are only two dozen tanker squadrons left.
The probability of being deployed to Geilenkirchen
at some point in the year is therefore high, as the
44 weeks (after taking out Christmas, Easter and summer
holidays) are normally covered in two-week stints.
For example, aircraft from the 161st, 186th and 171st
Air Refueling Wings were recent visitors to the NATO
is one of the most popular transfer locations. “Here
the missions are relatively simple and routine. The
reception you get at the base is very friendly and
in one's free time there is quite a bit to explore
in the surrounding area,” says Lt. Col. Keasey in
the ANG building directly by the flightline in Geilenkirchen
during a visit by FLUG REVUE. “The AWACS tank job
is regarded as the last good deal in the Guard,” compared
with jobs in the Middle East or on Guam which are
a lot more stressful.
all, most of the pilots and technicians of the Air National
Guard normally work in a civil profession and only put in
one weekend per month plus one three week spell per year with
squadron decides itself how the sought-after places will be
allocated. To operate two KC-135R's in Europe requires three
crews (each consisting of pilot, co-pilot and a Boomer to
operate the tank boom), plus six crew chiefs and a dozen technicians.
On the transatlantic trip the men fly in one tanker, while
the other one is laden with spare parts stowed in six cargo
pallets. As soon as the Stratotanker lands in Geilenkirchen,
usually on a Monday morning, the crew are allocated their
rooms on the base and briefed by the liaison officer. The
liaison offer will already have his flight plan ready for
the current week, this having normally been prepared the Thursday
we try and fly two missions a day,” explains Lt. Col. Keasey.
“As we are allowed to fly from eight in the morning to ten
at night, and we don't have the staff for two shifts, the
maintenance team's hours can be quite long.” On the other
hand, it is not usually a lot of work, as the KC-135R's are
very reliable despite their age. But things can get hectic
when an aircraft fails and the spare part needed is not in
stock. This must then be ordered by computer and flown in
using a civil express delivery company. “We then try to get
the remaining, serviceable Stratotanker in the air twice or
to combine two missions.” In such cases an extra pilot and
a second boom operator are carried on board if the flight
is a long one.
already mentioned, refuelling the E-3A is routine for the
crew. According to the recently published NATO Allied Technical
Publication 56(B), there are precise procedures to follow
in refuelling, so that no special preparation is needed before
being transferred over to Germany. In Geilenkirchen itself,
the crews receive an Air Refueling Contact Time (ARCT) for
each mission. This tells them at what time they have to be
on station. They plan their flight accordingly. After receiving
a weather update and briefing, they are at the aircraft about
an hour before take-off.
the KC-135's do not have to go far to make contact with the
E-3As, as often they will be flying one of four tanker tracks
above the Germany, which have names like “Erika”, “Gretchen”,
“Kim” and “Sandy”. The KC-135 takes up a position at an altitude
of about 8,800m (FL 270 to FL 300) with a speed of 510km/h.
15 minutes before contact time, the AWACS crew radio in and
give their callsign, IFF and actual time of arrival. The E-3A's
fly 300m below the KC-135 at first and slowly close in at
a speed of 575km/h until they start the approach phase at
a distance of 5km. Final checks are carried out once the AWACS
has closed to 1.5km away, then the Boomer takes over and guides
the AWACS pilot into the correct position behind the tanker
over the radio and using light signals.
two four-engined aircraft have to fly extremely close to each
other in order that the up to 14.3m long tank boom can be
inserted into the receptacle directly behind the cockpit of
the E-3A. “While this is going on you sometimes see the E-3A
pilot working pretty hard to stay in position,” says Lt. Col.
Rick Keasey. “For us it is less of a problem, as usually the
autopilot is switched on after contact and then the KC-135
is as stable as a rock in the sky. We only have to fly the
turns ourselves.” Long straight stretches (up to 225km) in
the refuelling circuit are very welcome since, at a maximum
flow of 2,720kg of fuel per minute, it can easily take a quarter
of an hour before the E-3A's tanks are full again.
entire procedure is part of the training programme of the
E-3A pilots and has to be practised several times a year.
“That's why we are here,” says Lt. Col. Keasey, “But the missions
are also good training for our crew that we wouldn't want
to do without.” The KC-135's of the Air National Guard will
therefore remain part of the normal routine in Geilenkirchen
for the foreseeable future.
: FLUG REVUE 1/2008