MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --
Python 61, a flight crew from the 350th Air Refueling Squadron was recently awarded the 2018 Brig. Gen. Ross G. Hoyt Award, on Aug. 1, 2019, for being the best air refueling crew in the United States Air Force.
The aircrew consisted of Capt. Chad Smith, 350th Air Refueling Squadron flight commander, Capt. Victoria Perkins, 22nd Operations Support Squadron executive officer, 1st Lt. Vanessa Hosaka, 350th ARS navigator, and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Jaskela, 350th ARS boom operator.
Python 61 was on what seemed to be a normal day-to-day flying mission when they were deployed. Seconds before starting their first sortie of the night they received information about a crash nearby.
“It started out with, a helicopter just went down and that wasn’t very clear,” said Smith.
Smith stated, once it had been confirmed the crash wasn’t a scheduled exercise, they had to wrap their heads around the fact that there had been one.
This information came through on equipment in the navigator suite. A four-man crew is extremely rare and only McConnell is known to fly four-man aerial refueling teams. The crews consist of two pilots, a navigator and a boom operator.
The navigator and the equipment provided in the navigator suite were crucial to the mission. During this flight the navigator suite had two to three more communication nodes.
“The communication of the aircraft [being] [downed], came through a system that we wouldn’t have had if we didn't have a navigator,” said Smith. “So we possibly could have [received] that message but the phone relays to get that information to us could have taken [much] longer or even [been] lost in translation.”
Perkins said the team took immediate action and the four man crew began their nine-hour sortie. Through the night the crew had multiple tasks that were handled promptly.
“The boom was [communicating] with the [receiving] aircraft in the back solely by himself while the navigator was trying to figure out where they needed us to go,” said Smith. “I was flying the plane and Perkins was coordinating the airspace we were heading into through the command and control, situating where they need us and how we were going to get there.”
Python 61 provided aerial refueling three separate times to three different gunships in the area of responsibility. Additionally, they were tasked with being a communications relay from the controlling agency to all active players of the mission providing support for the crashed helicopter. Without the four and a half extra hours spent refueling, the gunships would not have been able to provide continuous close air support. The crew was mentally prepared to not return home to provide aerial refueling and communications relay to the crew of the crashed helicopter.
“We evaluated the situation and asked ourselves if everyone was on board with what we’d have to do,” said Perkins. “Not a single person questioned it, even though we didn’t have extra clothes and we might have had to land on an airfield with no support, where we’d be servicing our own plane and possibly go into a situation with a security risk.”
According to the award package, Python 61, “has proven their exceptional capability to sustain the highest standard of aviation during highly demanding and rigorous SOAR deployments and high stress pop-up missions.” Due to their efforts, the 11 crew members of the downed helicopter were successfully recovered and medically evacuated.
“The crew resource management that night was what set us up for success and allowed us to perform the mission seamlessly,” said Smith. “Everything was textbook and I wouldn’t change anything we did that night.”
Smith said looking back on the night, the mission was the type that happens once in a career and to have been able to see all members of the downed helicopter to safety was surreal.