AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --
Washington Air National Guardsmen from the 141st Aerial Refueling Wing out of Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. flew to Aviano Air Base, Italy to support the 31st Fighter Wing in aerial refueling training Nov. 8 to Nov. 18, 2017.
The KC-135 Stratotanker and its crew planned on providing a week of aerial refueling operations with the 31st FW’s F-16 Fighting Falcons and although maintenance issues with the KC-135 prevented the full spectrum of training originally planned, the hard work of the 141st ARW maintainers still provided valuable training for the Aviano AB crews.
“Our conventional mission is aerial refueling and extending [flight times] for airframes. We are out here strictly for training with the 31st FW, getting them ready and current [on training],” said Lt. Col. Craig Gural, 141st ARW KC-135 instructor pilot and mission commander. “During deployment they are busy and aerial refueling is one of their primary duties that they have to perform in theater.”
Like many complicated tasks, aerial refueling takes practice to master and maintain proficiency in. The need to refresh skills is an ongoing one.
“[Aerial refueling] is a skillset that definitely requires constant renewal,” said Gural. “When you don’t practice it you lose those skills. So that’s what we come out here for, to renew that skillset to make sure they are good to go.”
Although the WA ANG Airmen were a long way from home, completing this kind of mission is just another day at the office for them.
“Because of total force integration we are pretty much interchangeable with active duty Air Force and Air Force Reserves,” said Gural. “It’s hard to tell the difference in who belongs to each component unless you ask.”
Although it may not be something new for the 141st crew, it’s definitely something they benefit from and are required to stay trained on as well.
“Yearly, we [aircrews] are all required to go overseas,” said Gural. “This is awesome for us. We do a lot of refueling training back home, but the overseas part is different. We get to talk with the Italian [air traffic controllers], get used to using different systems, [practice] oceanic clearances. We really get a lot out of the overseas training.”
Being so far away from home station and your usual operational support system can be difficult, especially when something goes wrong. Which was exactly the case for the 141st ARW crew shortly after taking off from Fairchild.
“A [generator] that provides power to the aircraft failed in flight. Per standard procedure the crew did a disconnect and opted to fly on because at the time we believed most likely the issue would be resolved by just servicing the generator,” said Master Sgt. Carter Marcy, 141st Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion specialist. “However in this circumstance, that was not the case. We serviced it to see if we were able to correct it, but in the end we determined that the generator was bad so we had to change it out.”
WA ANG Airmen are qualified in many areas, seeing into the future is not one of them. So although the maintenance issue was a hindrance to training it could not be predicted.
“This is why we come. We are here to keep the aircraft flying and support in case it breaks,” said Marcy.
Once the replacement part arrived the actual maintenance on the part went very quickly. The maintainers worked together to resolve the issue and get the aircraft in working order to provide the aerial refueling training for the 31st FW.
“We are limited on what we can bring with us and you can’t foresee every potential issue,” said Marcy. “The other specialists, the crew chiefs and myself are all fully qualified and experienced. We send people who are experienced because you don’t really have the ability to contact home and get support. I’m not saying we know it all, but we are proficient in our jobs.”
Despite the obstacles placed on them, the 141st ARW Airmen were able to resolve the issue as quickly as possible and get the training schedule back on track.
“Given the circumstances we did the best we could. I wish we could have got the [crew] out there a little more and perform more training, but they were able to complete what they could,” said Marcy. “We had a great group of [Airmen]. It was a good trip and it was successful.”
Even though the mission didn’t go as planned it was still accomplished the best it could be done.
“It’s unfortunate to have these kind of maintenance issues, because they need the practice, we need the practice and that’s why we are here, but that’s how it goes sometimes you just got to roll with the punches,” said Tech. Sgt. Louis Winters 141st ARW KC-135 boom operator. “Our maintenance crew did a great job getting us back flying as quickly as they could.”
Airmen in all components and career fields can be asked to do a lot. Both in the difficulty level of the tasks and in the time commitment that is required of them. It is simply the nature of the mission for service members. This is no different for aircrews of the 141st ARW.
“Between all our [temporary duties], deployments and alert scheduling each boom operator is gone an average of 260 days a year,” said Winters. “So trying to maintain a full time job, a family and everything else it can be difficult to maintain that kind of tempo.”
Although the job can be demanding there are without a doubt some perks that come from being willing to do the job Guardsmen are called upon to do.
“These kind of trips are what makes your job worthwhile. This is what makes you keep coming back and being able to deal with all the things you don’t want to,” said Winters. “Getting the opportunity to come out and do something like this, experience another country and support another squadron to get them trained makes the next time we have to go to the desert not so difficult. It makes you want to stick around a lot longer.”