NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --
McConnell’s 22nd and 931st Air Refueling Wings sent tankers to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in support of Exercise Red Flag 21-3 from July 17 to August 6.
Red Flag was first implemented due to the unacceptable air-to-air loss ratios during the Vietnam War and has provided an unrivaled opportunity to experience realistic combat scenarios in preparation for future warfare.
This Red Flag historically marks the first time the Air Force’s newest tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus, has made an appearance, greatly expanding mission capabilities through its versatile refueling platform.
“For the KC-46, the 344th Air Refueling Squadron members are looking to see how far their capabilities can go with new communications systems, new threat awareness systems, all to be more survivable in that type of environment,” said Capt. Thomas Roller, Red Flag Tanker Task Force detachment commander.
The KC-46 was recently approved for centerline-drogue refueling and is the only DoD aircraft capable of switching between the drogue and boom methods mid-flight. This allows the KC-46 to fuel a broader range of aircraft without returning to base, changing air refueling tactics and operations across the DoD.
“We’re trying to change the mindset of the tanker force,” said Tech. Sgt. Alex “Bella” Esquibel, 22nd Air Refueling Wing noncommissioned officer-in-charge of wing tactics. “It’s an awesome large-force exercise where we can integrate with combat air forces.”
The opportunities Red Flag provides would be severely limited without McConnell’s Tanker Task Force, who delivered over 1.4 million lbs. of fuel to more than 290 receiving aircraft. However, with any new airframe operating in a novel environment, challenges are to be expected.
“The KC-46 hasn’t necessarily worked in heat like this,” said 1st Lt. Andrew Wilson, 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron support section officer-in-charge. “It’s opening up eyes for us to send back data to McConnell about any limitations [or issues] we’ve had.”
Despite these new challenges, Wilson remains confident in his team’s ability to get the job done, citing the vital role maintenance plays in the exercise’s success.
“Without maintenance getting our part of the mission done, it hinders what Red Flag hopes to accomplish,” Wilson said.
The gathered aircraft from across the joint forces and partner nations differ in countless ways both physically and mission requirements, but they all share a crucial commonality--they all need gas.
“Tankers are like an offensive lineman,” Wilson said. “Whenever they’re doing well, everything runs smooth, but the moment that o-line goes down, like when those tankers don’t get in the air, things start going south.”