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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: KC-135 supports war on terrorism

Then 1st Lt. Joey Markusfeld, center, KC-135 Stratotanker copilot, poses for a photo with the rest of his crew, October 2001, during a deployment in support of the war on terrorism. Markusfeld was part of one of five aircrews to deploy from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., in the month following the 9/11 attacks.  (Courtesy photo)

Then 1st Lt. Joey Markusfeld, center, KC-135 Stratotanker copilot, poses for a photo with the rest of his crew, October 2001, during a deployment in support of the war on terrorism. Markusfeld was part of one of five aircrews to deploy from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., in the month following the 9/11 attacks. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- (Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight on August 31, 2016.)

The day began as a normal day of post-mission crew rest. The pilot sat down to watch TV, when a reporter interrupted and said an airplane had hit one of the twin towers.

"Originally when I saw it, I thought to myself, 'what a horrible airplane accident,' like I'm guessing the rest of the country thought," said Lt. Col. Joey Markusfeld, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Director of Staff and KC-135 Stratotanker pilot. "Then, the second airplane hit, and even though I was on my post-mission, I put on my flight suit and went into work because I knew what was happening."

Markusfeld, then a first lieutenant, reported to the 384th Air Refueling Squadron here, where he and his fellow Airmen watched as the towers collapsed.

"At first it was disbelief," he said. "It was like watching a movie.  You're seeing it happen, but it's not really happening. And after that, [the disbelief] was supplanted by anger pretty damn quick. We all wanted to fight back."

His commander began putting crews together and sent them home for crew-rest before they reported back at 10:30 p.m that night.

"They had already [started up]the aircraft for us, so we were ready for rapid launch," said Markusfeld. "We strapped into the jet, and before the clock struck midnight, we were airborne."

For the next two weeks, aircrews from McConnell provided KC-135 support to the fighters who were performing combat patrols over Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas.

"We didn't know what was happening," he recalled. "We didn't know if we were going to be conventionally attacked, we didn't know if there were more attacks coming, or what was coming next. We had even discussed in the aircraft what we would do if we had to confront another terrorist aircraft and whether we would sacrifice our own aircraft in order to prevent another attack on the homeland. The answer was yes."

By the end of the month, Markusfeld was part of one of five crews to deploy from McConnell. The initial planning factored in the expectation of losing two crews, he said.

"One day, I went into work, and they said 'we are go,'" he remembered. "Those were the days before cellphones, so I didn't have the ability to call my wife and tell her I was leaving. When I said goodbye to her that morning, I didn't speak to her again for over a month. She got a phone call [from the director of operations] once a week saying 'they're still alive,' and that was it."

When the aircrews arrived to their destination, they found nothing but a runway and a couple of warehouses. Although they didn't have a lot to work with, they knew they had a mission to focus on. With only a print-out of a basic plan, most of the coordination for the refuelings, operations, fighter and special operations packages were done mainly from scratch, using a pencil and paper.

"The first night of the war was absolute chaos," said Markusfeld. "You just did what you had to do, and you went where you had to go. We took fire from both surface-to-air missiles and triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery). They never got a fighter airborne, thankfully, [but] we were under fire the entire time. We went in just as deep as the [special operators]."

Markusfeld and his crew provided constant tanker support in the heart of the war until their deployment ended in December and proved the importance of aerial refueling in the fight against terrorism.

"The first four-engine aircraft in Afghanistan was a KC-135 with a C-130 Hercules on the boom," said Markusfeld. "The war could not have been fought without it."

Col. Phil Heseltine, 22nd ARW vice commander, was in England when the towers fell. Although he was not part of Markusfeld's crew, he experienced first-hand the impact of the KC-135 during a different deployment in support of the war on terrorism.

"When you fly low in an airplane, you're burning more gas," said Heseltine. "It's more efficient to fly high. So as these [special operations aircraft] are doing all their maneuvers down there, they run out of gas pretty quickly, but there's always a tanker right there."

Fifteen years ago, when the U.S. was attacked, KC-135s helped defend our country. Today, these same tankers still fly across the globe providing support to contingencies here at home and around the world.

"You just can't do what we do without KC-135s," said Heseltine. " We have the ability to deliver kinetic effects around the world within 24 to 48 hours on any actor, and we've done that over and over again."