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McConnell SOARS amidst pandemic

Pictured, from left, Capt. David Degroat, 350th Air Refueling Squadron deputy readiness chief, Capt. Austin Gainor, 350th ARS navigator, 1st Lt. Rico Hilliard, 350th ARS KC-135 pilot, and Senior Airman Kelsey Tillotson, 350th ARS in-flight refueling specialist, recently completed a multilateral exercise Sept. 2, 2020, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. McConnell provides critical Special Operations Air Refueling capabilities for MLATs, which are training missions that include multiple branches of the military. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michaela R. Slanchik)

Pictured, from left, Capt. David Degroat, 350th Air Refueling Squadron deputy readiness chief, Capt. Austin Gainor, 350th ARS navigator, 1st Lt. Rico Hilliard, 350th ARS KC-135 pilot, and Senior Airman Kelsey Tillotson, 350th ARS in-flight refueling specialist, recently completed a multilateral exercise Sept. 2, 2020, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. McConnell provides critical Special Operations Air Refueling capabilities for MLATs, which are training missions that include multiple branches of the military. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michaela R. Slanchik)

Five McConnell Airmen recently completed a multilateral exercise with three Air Force Special Operations wings and joint special operations partners.

MLATs are training missions that include multiple branches of the military and focus on special operations missions. Joint refueling exercises help receivers, no matter the branch of the military, practice receiving fuel in-flight and help McConnell stay qualified.

Of the Air Force’s entire KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, McConnell is the only base equipped with KC-135RT frames that are used specifically for Special Operations Air Refueling missions. The aircraft can not only offload fuel while flying, but can also receive fuel. The KC-135RTs have enhanced technology that enable communications with receiver aircraft while limiting the chances of being detected by adversaries.

 While MLAT exercises generally include forward deploying to a location closer to the simulated mission, this one was different due to the pandemic. Capt. David Degroat, 350th Air Refueling Squadron deputy readiness chief, has helped supplement sorties from McConnell during these exercises in the past, but this was the first time his team operated solely from home station.

“The flights were longer due to the extra transit time to the refueling location, but I’m proud that we were easily able to adapt and overcome,” said Degroat. “For the newer pilots and boom operators in the exercise who haven’t deployed yet, it was good for them to get exposure to a consistent flying schedule with flights longer than the typical local training.”

In addition to MLATs, Team McConnell participates in bilateral exercises and local SOAR training missions to stay certified on the crucial capability.

“Skills in general can atrophy quickly, so we actively work to get better at flying, especially the special procedures required for SOAR,” said Degroat.

McConnell participates in these exercises several times a year with a variety of receiver units.

During this particular MLAT, Team McConnell provided fuel to AC-130 Gunships, MC-130 Combat Talons, C-17 Globemasters and E-3 Sentrys, better known as AWACS.

Despite the global pandemic, more than 24 aircraft and 1,200 servicemembers were able to safely participate.

 “SOAR is the Wing’s second most important mission,” said Maj. Andrew Teigeler, 22nd Operations Group deputy SOAR chief. “This training is how we will make sure we’re the experts at it.”