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Combat aerial refueling supports search, rescue mission

22 ARW, SOAR, Combat Refueling

An AC-130J Ghostrider approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker during a multi-lateral exercise March 29, 2018, over Idaho. During flights at night, boom operators use night vision goggles to help them spot the receiver aircraft in low-light conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alan Ricker)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- It was another flight in the night skies of Iraq, same mission.

The KC-135 Stratotanker was in place to receive two F-15E Strike Eagles, but new information halted the refueling.

“The F-15s were five minutes from having to go home due to their fuel status,” said Capt. Chad Smith, 350th Air Refueling Squadron aircraft commander. “We were supposed to give them a maximum offload.”

Staff Sgt. Jeffery Jaskela, 350th ARS boom operator, commanded the F-15s to hold their position until orders were given, because 1st Lt. Vanessa Hosaka, 350th ARS navigator, had just relayed that a helicopter recently crashed.

“As the navigator, I am in charge of all communication systems that are on board,” said Hosaka. “I noticed that there was some activity going on about a downed helicopter and as soon as I put the coordinates in, I noticed that area of activity was just north of us.”

During the communication exchange, the fighters were kicked off to fly home or find a new fuel source.

“They understood the priority changed to search and rescue support,” said Smith.

Smith explained that Hosaka was able to pinpoint the location of the crash site and communicated with the AC-130U gunships that were providing combat air patrol, while Capt. Victoria Perkins also coordinated airspace with Command and Control.

“We made a combat decent to a lower altitude and initiated ‘yo-yo’ operations,” said Smith. “One aircraft would come up and get gas while the other one stayed on scene to ensure continuous ground coverage.”

Ground control eventually sent a U.S. Marine KC-130J to assist with refueling the helicopters that were a part of the search and rescue operation.

Smith said that they calculated on the spot how much fuel to give by using live weather updates, location, altitude and wind conditions.

“The calculations allowed us to provide an extra 6,000 or 7,000 pounds of gas,” said Smith. “Each crew member was maximizing the available assets to make the new mission happen.”

While refueling at low altitudes, the tanker crew also acted as the on-scene commander due to limited receiver communications. They accounted for everyone’s location and relayed secure communications to people on the ground.

“At the time the search and rescue initiated is when the AC-130s would’ve had to leave due to fuel,” added Smith.

The quick response of the aircrew allowed the gunships to provide combat air control, which created a safe perimeter for the recovery of a fallen soldier and several survivors.