Fill 'er Up
In the Nation's First 'Tanker War' Every Mission Needs Midair Refueling
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 21, 2002; Page F01
OFF THE COAST OF NEW JERSEY
The huge KC-10 tanker appears as a dot on the horizon, much as one airliner looks from the window of another, separated by two or three miles and at least 1,000 feet in altitude.
But Air Force Maj. Mark Ustaszewski, at the controls of an identical wide-body refueler, is closing on the other plane, causing a desiccated computer voice to sound an alert in the cockpit -- "Traffic! Traffic!"
And still Ustaszewski closes in. Finally, as he throttles back and holds steady at a "precontact" point, the two 590,000-pound jets -- modified DC-10 airliners laden with fuel -- are about 50 feet apart in midair, each flying at 360 mph. Then he starts edging his jet even closer at an agonizingly slow foot per second toward the tip of a refueling boom extending from the rear of the other plane.
His left hand on the yoke, his right hand on the throttle, Ustaszewski steadies the jet and inches it forward until the boom connects with a receptacle on top of the fuselage just behind the cockpit. A green indicator light glows on the control panel: "Latched."
The two jumbo jets have mated in midair, ready to start transferring fuel at 22,000 feet. They are huge flying gas stations, each capable of hauling 52,000 gallons of jet fuel -- enough to keep the average automobile running for 25 years -- and pumping it into gas-guzzling bombers and fighters at 1,100 gallons a minute.
Today's flight over the Atlantic Ocean is a training mission for Ustaszewski and his co-pilot, Capt. Mike Banzet. Both already have spent weeks over Afghanistan in what one defense analyst calls "the tanker war" -- the first air campaign in U.S. history in which every long-range bomber and every fighter bomber required midair refueling -- often more than once -- to complete its combat mission.
"Afghanistan is really our first extended-range war," says Michael Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The strike sorties heavily involved long-range aircraft coming from Diego Garcia, or carrier aircraft flying triple or quadruple their normal range."
But that's only half the tanker story. Afghanistan is also the first war in U.S. military history in which every soldier and every ounce of materiel had to be airlifted into a land-locked country. And just about all of those airlifters needed fuel somewhere along the way, as did dozens of intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft circling over the country for hours on end.
Indeed, what sets the U.S. military apart from every other military in the world -- every bit as much as smart bombs and stealth planes -- are tankers and lifters. These aircraft enable America -- and only America -- to project power around the world on a massive scale.
"Tankers are essential to everything," Vickers said. "You don't leave home without them."
On the morning of Sept. 11, Ustaszewski, 36, blond hair combed straight back from his angular face, was in Dallas taking a physical for a job at American Airlines. His career as an airline pilot immediately went on ice as the Air Force clamped tight "stop loss" procedures on essential personnel -- tanker pilots chief among them. Ustaszewski packed his bags for a classified location in Southwest Asia three hours from Afghanistan, where he returned again for a third tour almost two weeks ago.
"I was glad to stay," says Ustaszewski, an Air Force Academy graduate from Nahant, Mass., north of Boston. "It's hard on the family. That's why I decided to get out in the first place. But my wife understood. This is what we got to do right now."
Going to American Airlines would have meant a one-third pay cut and it would have taken three years to get back up to his Air Force salary. But even four-star generals don't come close to the $350,000 salary of senior American Airlines captains -- the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for all aspiring commercial pilots.
Flying for the airlines, Ustaszewski says, is "pretty much bus driver kind of stuff. You take off, you land, it's all automated." As for tankers, "you won't get this kind of fun flying anywhere else."
Only a handful of other nations possess the capability to refuel combat aircraft in midair, but their tanker fleets are small. The Air Force has 55 KC-10s like the one Ustaszewski and Banzet are flying and 550 smaller KC-135s. The Marines have 75 KC-130s, and the Navy has 110 carrier-based S-3Bs.
During the heaviest bombing in the opening weeks of the war, 30 to 35 tankers were in the air nearly round the clock to refuel 100 tactical jets. That fleet included B-52 and B-1 bombers coming from the island of Diego Garcia, 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, Navy fighters flying off carriers in the Arabian Sea almost 700 miles from Kabul and Air Force fighters flying 1,400 miles from Kuwait and Qatar.
"This has been one huge geography lesson," says Maj. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of the Air Mobility Command's Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
For the sake of comparison, carriers in the Persian Gulf were about 350 miles from Baghdad and much, much closer to targets in southern Iraq. Carriers in the Arabian Sea, by contrast, are twice as far from Kabul -- and more than 800 miles from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
And 800 miles is close, considering that the B-52s and B-1s are coming from Diego Garcia -- the equivalent of bombers taking off from New York to bomb Los Angeles before returning home.
In the opening days of the air war, B-2 stealth bombers made history by flying the longest combat sorties in history, from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to Afghanistan and back with a stopover in Diego Garcia to change crews. The Whiteman-Afghanistan-Diego Garcia leg took between 40 and 44 hours and required six midair refuelings. The leg from Diego Garcia back to Whiteman took about 30 hours and required five more drinks from a tanker.
The B-2s flew only six missions -- stealth wasn't all that essential, given Afghanistan's paucity of air defenses. But even Navy jets flying off carriers needed as many as six midair refuelings to fly in over Afghanistan, drop their bombs and get back to their ships.
"Not one of those bombers or fighters would have gotten in and out without a tanker," says Col. James R. Pugh III, vice commander of the 305th Air Mobility Wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, home to about half of the KC-10 fleet.
A Fill-Up Gone Bad
As dawn broke in the sky south of Kabul, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Wright guided his F/A-18 Hornet up to a refueling hose trailing behind a KC-10 and put his jet's probe right into the "basket" at the end of the hose. In his fifth refueling on a five-hour mission, he pushed in on the basket, just like he was supposed to.
But Wright says the KC-10's take-up reel did not function properly and, after slack gathered in the hose, the basket and a 10-inch metal nozzle ripped off and remained snared on his probe. The nozzle began flapping in the extreme wind and started smashing the jet's canopy to pieces.
Soon, Wright, 34, the son of a Navy fighter pilot from Virginia Beach, found himself flying a convertible combat jet at 390 mph almost 30,000 feet over Afghanistan. He remembers the first minute or two as a kind of out-of-body experience: "This isn't happening to me," he remembers thinking. Then subzero temperatures in his wind-blasted cockpit brought him back to reality as he dove to 15,000 feet and slowed to about 310 mph, the speed at which he found the heavy nozzle stopped flapping in the breeze.
He landed safely in Pakistan about 40 minutes later, extremely cold but uninjured. "Hell, I've had more hair-raising arguments with girlfriends," he says by telephone during a recent interview from the USS John C. Stennis, displaying the ultimate in fighter-pilot cool. "It wasn't that bad."
Wright, a University of Florida graduate and 11-year Navy veteran who has flown 500 midair refuelings, says the procedure with a KC-10 "on a good day" is "no more difficult than fishing for change in your pocket while you're slowing down for a tollbooth."
But refueling at night in choppy air from the basket used by the KC-135, which Navy pilots call the "iron maiden," he said, "is about as hard as it gets -- it's really unnerving, because up in Afghanistan, you really don't have anywhere else to go."
Not surprisingly, Wright says he holds tanker pilots in high esteem. "Every one of them are beautiful human beings," he says. "I'd buy a tanker pilot a beer at any time -- they have saved my bacon plenty. Hell, my station today was 720 miles from the boat. There's no way I could get there without them."
Tanker pilot exploits have even made their way into fiction. In the best-selling thriller "Chains of Command," author Dale Brown, a retired Air Force captain, writes about a KC-10 pilot named Rebecca Furness who decides to talk the navigator of a crippled fighter bomber into the boom even though she is over Iraq, where radio communications could easily trigger surface-to-air missile fire.
Furness watched as the F-111G began moving closer. She could see the long black nose bobbing a bit as the nav made rather large pitch changes -- too large for being less than fifty feet away: "Use nice, easy power and stick changes," she said. "Nothing drastic, nothing sudden. Forget about your fuel state, forget about your pilot, forget about everything. Relax. It's like pulling your big Jaguar into your garage and parking it. Concentrate on slipping that big Aardvark nose right under my tail. We'll tell you when to stop."
"You're starting to turn me on," Mace radioed back.
Fueling a Fighting Spirit
A few weeks before he deployed to the Afghan theater in October, Banzet, 34, took his two young children to ground zero in Lower Manhattan to help them understand what happened. "I try to explain it to them -- there are bad guys who did this, and we're going over to paste 'em," says Banzet, a native of Kalispell, Mont.
He ended up sweet-talking his way past the barricades at the World Trade Center site, to where the police and the firefighters were still searching for bodies. They gave him a small souvenir, a handful of dust and debris, to take with him.
Banzet enlisted in the Air Force as a 19-year-old, starting as a crew chief on F-4 fighters and working his way through college while in the service. In flight school, he was in line to fly fighters until the day he had a run-in with his flight commander, and found himself on the tanker track.
Now he can't imagine flying anything else and is willing to match a tanker pilot's skills with those of the exalted fighter jocks. "Any time you fly two airplanes this close, there's all sorts of bad stuff that can happen," he says. "We have to know a hell of a lot of airmanship. We take off weighing 590,000 pounds, and we have to know what the airplane is going to do. Bottom line, we don't have ejector seats. We don't get rid of the airplane. You get in trouble in a fighter, you put the nose up and hit the gas."
The most striking aspect of midair refueling is just how routine it has become, given the dangers involved, the skill required to maneuver up to the boom and the spectacular nature of jets flying so close one can almost touch the other.
"It's not easy, especially when it gets turbulent," one Navy fighter pilot flying off the USS Carl Vinson explains. "You're low on gas, it's dark, the tankers have their lights on very low, if at all. Sometimes it's more difficult than finding a target and dropping a bomb on it."
For Ustaszewski and Banzet, a typical combat sortie over Afghanistan requires a two- to three-hour flight just to get there from their base in Southwest Asia (which they can't reveal but is most likely Qatar); four hours flying over the battlefield on one of four 30-by-50-mile predetermined refueling tracks, and two to three hours back home. Banzet remembers flying a 14 1/2-hour sortie after a Marine KC-130 tanker crashed in a fireball in Pakistan ferrying fuel to the battlefield.
Today's training mission is short by comparison -- a mere four hours -- and in reverse order. Instead of tanking fighters first and then receiving fuel from a KC-135 and remaining on station, they fly out over the Atlantic and practice giving and taking jet fuel from another KC-10. Then they head down to North Carolina and tank eight F-15 Eagles flying from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
Seated in the boom compartment in the rear of the KC-10, Staff Sgt. Loren Will, 37, a veteran boom operator and instructor, is peering through a huge windshield down at a succession of F-15s pulling up to the pump. Unlike the big jets that approach the boom ever so slowly, the fighters roll in and throttle back before Will maneuvers the boom into their fuel-tank receptacles.
They drink several thousand pounds of fuel and then peel off.
Will tanked 30 aircraft during one combat sortie over Afghanistan that included a 40,000-pound fuel dump from a KC-135. But the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane controlling all the traffic, Will says, kept sending in new customers for fuel.
With 100 strike aircraft flying missions over Afghanistan in a single day, AWACS planes were key players. It's not the fighter edging up to your boom that you have to worry about, Banzet says, but everything else that's flying over Afghanistan at any given moment.
Flying directly over the battlefield was a new phenomenon for both pilots. Banzet remembers calling in four suspicious vehicles on the ground for possible engagement -- a first for him. He could see flashes of antiaircraft fire exploding, but far too low to put the huge tankers in any jeopardy.
"I think I get as much satisfaction being part of it as I would going out there and shooting the missiles," Ustaszewski says. "It wouldn't get done without the tanker world, given the global reach that we do."
With a week to go until his third Afghan deployment, Ustaszewski peers into the crystal-clear distance. All the hard flying, yoke and throttle in hand, is over. The F-15s have all come and gone, fuel tanks full. The long runway at McGuire comes into view.
"There's times when I'm flying like this," Ustaszewski says, "that I think, I can't believe they pay me to do this."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company