JB ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, ALASKA --
Airmen with the 931st Air Refueling Wing (ARW) premiered the KC-46A Pegasus aircraft and its capabilities during Exercise Northern Edge 2021 (NE21) — a U.S. only joint-field training exercise held above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and in the Gulf of Alaska during May 3-14, 2021.
As one of the newer aircraft to join the fight, Airmen from the 931st ARW, an Air Reserve Component (ARC) Wing assigned to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, were able to integrate the KC-46 and its different abilities.
Thirty-one members supporting NE21 from the 931st ARW and the 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) made up the aircrew, support staff and mission planning cell. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Glenn Clark, the KC-46 detachment commander for NE21, was involved in overseeing the team’s performance.
“They know the KC-46 mission, and they’re here to show the world what it can do,” Clark said. “Every single person through maintenance, life support, the squadron aviation resource managers (SARM) and the mission planning cell is pivotal to our objectives.”
The KC-46A is the first phase in recapitalizing the U.S. Air Force's aging tanker fleet. With greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135 Stratotanker, the KC-46A will provide next-generation aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and partner-nation receivers.
There are multiple Airmen who collaborate with each other to successfully propel the tanker for refueling missions. Beginning with coordination from the NE21 exercise planners, personnel like U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Aaron Maurer, an NE21 mission planner also assigned to the 931st ARW, puts together flight plans that inform the KC-46 aircrew what to prepare for in flight. Essentially, he is responsible for communicating with joint force pilots to assess when his crew needs to be ready to refuel their aircraft.
“[Northern Edge] is very educational for everyone,” Maurer said. “We’re learning how to work together as a joint force, showing the capabilities of the KC-46. Through that interaction, we can train our people for the future.”
At the same time, the SARM is responsible for ensuring 16 aircrew are ready for the daily flying missions, and keeping records of flight plans and hours. Once planning and organizing is established and polished, the aircrew steps on to the flight line to prepare for takeoff.
Altogether, the 931st ARW crew chiefs, communications crew, aircrew flight equipment and life support personnel, boom operators, and pilots have their work to do.
Aircrew flight equipment specialists place and inspect all the emergency equipment on the jet before and after flying. Flight equipment maintained and repaired by AFE Airmen include items such as flight helmets and oxygen masks, parachutes, survival equipment and more. Meanwhile, Airmen assigned to the 22nd AMXS provide maintenance, and they refuel the aircraft before departure. Finally, boom operators, pilots and their communication specialist are ready to take the team to the skies.
Boom operators are responsible for pumping thousands of pounds of fuel to any capable aircraft thousands of feet above the ground.
Chief Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, also assigned to the 931st ARW, was a boom operator in the KC-135 for 31 years before switching over to the KC-46.
“Operating on this new aircraft feels great,” said Lewis. “It’s nice that the fighter community finally gets to actually see us, rather than just hearing about us. They have all been very complimentary of the KC-46 so far.”
Younger boom operators like Senior Airman Robert Estragen, also from the 931st ARW, are among the up-and-coming operators handling the aircraft.
“It’s a great opportunity to operate on the KC-46 as a young Airman to help pave the way for future Airmen and capabilities that haven’t been discovered,” said Estragen.
Strengthening joint interoperability is a top objective for NE21. The aircraft’s fuel can be pumped through the boom, drogue and wing aerial-refueling pods.
“Up here, the naval forces are huge during Northern Edge, and we support those,” said Clark. “We refuel naval assets and Air Force assets. This exercise is a mix of everyone.”
Joint training enhances interoperability and prepares units for future joint-force operations.
“We are setting records [during Northern Edge] and learning how fast we can get back to the fight,” said Clark.