Clive Bennett looks at the 100th ARW during its recent stay at RAF Fairford. All photography by the author unless stated otherwise.
From its earliest beginnings, through to the modern day, airborne refuelling has given military planners the capability to project power and increase endurance the world over.
The nature of airborne refuelling within the United States Air Force has altered from the days of Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, when scores of KC-135s sat alert with their bomber brethren. Nowadays, with SAC confined to the history books, most air-air refuelling sorties are for the benefit of tactical strike aircraft.
Activated in February 1992 at RAF Mildenhall, its current home, the 100th Air Refueling Wing (with the 351st Airborne Refueling Squadron) was reunited with the country where it first started operational missions in 1943 as the 100th Bomb Group (the 'Bloody Hundredth', so named because of its high loss rate during the first year of operations). With fifteen aircraft and twenty crews assigned, the 351st is the only permanent tanker squadron within the USAF to be stationed in Europe. The 351st operates throughout the European theatre, from Iceland to Turkey, and everywhere in between.
The 100th ARW is sometimes joined by aircraft from stateside units, active duty, National Guard and Reserves, who arrive on temporary deployment to help supplement operations. This is less common now, as in early 2000 the 351st increased its quota of aircraft to help with the growing number of operations within its area of responsibility. The 351st is also unique within the USAF, as it is the only unit which has a single-letter tailcode (D), this being a tribute to the 100th Bomb Wing of the 1940s, and all the tankers currently carry the same nose art honouring this association.
The fifteen aircraft assigned are all to the latest specification KC-135R, with CFM International turbofan engines and the 'Pacer Crag' glass cockpit modification that allows a two-man crew operation, negating the need for a Navigator. With a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, and a range of 1,500 miles, the KC-135R is capable of offloading 150,000 pounds of fuel. For a ferry mission, the KC-135R is capable of travelling over 11,000 miles. Maximum take-off weight is 322,500 pounds, with a maximum cargo capability of 83,000 pounds or 37 passengers. With the youngest KC-135 now over 39 years old, and with over 600 still in the USAF, some sources state that some airframes may reach over 80 years of flight, so the KC-135 will certainly be around for a long time to come.
The 351st ARS supports many different nations within Europe, providing air-air refuelling for the Dutch, Belgium, German, Norwegian and Danish air forces, to name but a few, as well as supporting their own forces stationed within Europe plus units from the mainland USA. The 351st has supported many combat operations over the years (Iraq, Kosovo, etc.), as well as regularly contributing to exercises within Europe, Canada and the USA. In the past five years the 351st has amassed some truly outstanding statistics - in 2003 7,306 hours were flown over 1,616 sorties, offloading 53 million pounds of fuel.
In February 2004, the 351st ARS deployed to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire while the runway at RAF Mildenhall was resurfaced. It returned to Mildenhall in early July after over 400 missions had been flown, offloading over 12 million pounds of fuel in the five months. During its stay I joined one of these missions, flying on 26 June in support of Exercise 'Clean Hunter'.
As part of a two-ship formation, callsigns 'Logger 63' & 'Logger 64', our mission is to fly out in trail up the Daventry corridor, turn east and head out over the North Sea. Crossing the Dutch coast we continue onto Germany, where we are to rendezvous with our receivers, four Belgian and four Dutch F-16AMs. With the receivers coming from behind and below us, firstly two Belgian F-16s, 'Tiger 25 & 26' make verbal and then visual contact with our tanker, the first being called to the 'boom'. After a couple of minutes and 3,000 pounds of fuel, it is the turn of the second F-16. Four Dutch aircraft then come into view, callsigns 'Cabin 31-34', who hold station on our right wing until the second of the Belgian aircraft has cleared. The Dutch fighters are then called in one at a time to top off their tanks, receiving between 2,000 - 3,700 pounds of fuel each, before rejoining the exercise.
After the Dutch aircraft have departed, the final two Belgian fighters 'Mace 31 & 32' rendezvous with us for their allocated quotas. All to briefly they are off the boom and back to their exercise. Altering course back towards the Dutch coast to cross the English coast by the Wash, we head east to rejoin the Daventry corridor for the flight back to Fairford. Trailing the other tanker back to Fairford, we turn finals for a run-and-break over the airfield, then line up for a full-stop landing.
Taxing back to our stand, the ground crew wait to accept the aircraft from the flight crew, ready to rectify any faults encountered during the flight. Engine shutdown, systems shutdown, forms signed and aircraft handed over, it is time to jump in the crew bus for the drive back to the squadron buildings.
The 351st is one of the most desirable postings within the USAF tanker community, as the opportunity to travel throughout Europe is one of the biggest attractions for would-be squadron members. The 100th Bomb Wing may have long passed into history, but those young men of the 'Bloody Hundredth' can be proud that their legacy is living on in the capable hands of the 100th ARW and its personnel.
With thanks to Lt Glory Smith, TSgt Cynthia Dorfner, Captain Shane Balkan, 100th Public Affairs, and the crew of 'Logger 63'.