ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England — Cooperation was paramount Dec. 8 as 30 Royal Danish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons took to the skies over their homeland to rendezvous with a RAF Mildenhall-based KC-135 Stratotanker and perform semi-annual aerial refueling training.
The mission fortified both operational readiness and mutual trust between the NATO allies.
"Regular training and exercises in an allied multinational environment help aircrews to increase interoperability with other aircrews and aircraft," said Manfred Reudenbach, spokesman for the Allied Air Component Command Headquarters Ramstein, Germany.
During the eight-hour training mission, the Stratotanker offloaded more than 40,000 tons of fuel and provided valuable training to dozens of Danish pilots who regularly fly combat sorties with the International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan.
"There is a principle in the alliance that's called 'train as you fight,' which explains it all," said Reudenbach. "This proficiency gained in peacetime is an important basis for improved performance during real-world missions. Practically said, the Danish F-16 fighter pilot who has already received gas from a U.S. KC-135 during air-to-air refueling will handle this situation with routine in a real-world environment, as demonstrated in ISAF operations every day."
The 100th Air Refueling Wing leadership understands the vital role the wing plays in NATO operations.
"Our cooperation with NATO partners like the Royal Danish Air Force contributes immensely to building partner capacity," said Col. Chad Manske, 100th ARW commander.
Tankers enable America and its allies the capability to maintain air superiority across the globe. The 100th ARW's tanker fleet is responsible for much of that area.
"This wing is a diverse organization with a variety of combat support missions throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East," said Manske. "Refueling U.S. and NATO partner aircraft is a primary mission responsibility as our geographic area of coverage spans more than 20 million square miles using 15 assigned KC-135 Stratotankers."
The Air Force understands the importance of aerial refueling and only selects the best Airmen to perform the task, said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Powell, 100th Operations Group. After all, air-to-air refueling is a complex operation and takes a specialized Airman to accomplish the precise mission.
RAF Mildenhall's fleet has the capability to refuel any type of U.S. and allied aircraft using either a "probe" boom system or "drogue" wing-mounted system. The boom operator is the Airman responsible for guiding the boom and actually refueling the receiving aircraft.
Chief Powell is one such Airman and was the boom operator responsible for refueling the Danish F-16s during the Dec. 8 mission.
"Because we have the ability to provide receivers with extra fuel in the air, we expand their combat capability exponentially," said Powell.
Powell cited the RAF Lakenheath-based F-15E Strike Eagles as an example.
"On a full tank of fuel, Lakenheath's fighters can safely fly to Germany and back. Any attempt to go further, they would have to land and take on fuel," said the chief. With tanker support, the same Lakenheath fighter can fly to the Middle East or Africa, perform a combat sortie, and fly home to the U.K. without ever landing.
Specialized KC-135s can refuel several types of receivers, even those that burn different types of gas by using a system that segregates fuel tanks spread throughout the wings and belly of the airframe.
"Our tankers allow all types of aircraft the ability to leave stateside bases and fly directly to the Middle East without landing in Europe," Powell said. "They also extend the capability to our allies."
For U.S. and NATO, the tanker is the lifeline to extending air operations, said Colonel Manske. "Our tankers and combat support capability play a central role in enabling global reach in the United Kingdom, and while supporting NATO in Europe and Africa, as well as the [U.S. Central Command] area of responsibility."