Mobility Operations: Full Spectrum Readiness – Aerial Refueling


Full Spectrum Readiness is integral to the continuing objectives of the Air Force. It is woven through the training and preparation of Airmen who fly the humanitarian and Total Force contingency missions of the Air Mobility Command (AMC).

Air refueling extends the reach of today’s warfighters and humanitarian missions, thereby enriching the meaning of Full Spectrum Readiness.

Full Spectrum Readiness requires improving the equipment and tactics used to meet the complex threats being developed and proliferated among potential adversaries. In simple terms, it describes the intricate mindset and processes that go into preparing Airmen for their essential and often perilous missions.

The missions that Airmen undertake sometimes take them beyond the capacity of their aircraft’s fuel tanks. Aerial refueling provides the vital link to the next phase of their journey, giving them the capability to reach both military personnel and civilians who need them in foreign lands.

The Free Dictionary defines aerial refueling as “A method of extending the range of military aircraft by refueling them from tanker aircraft in air.” Also called air-to-air refueling, in-flight refueling, tanking, and air refueling, it enables the global reach that is so critical to U.S. warfighting and AMC’s humanitarian and military support functions.

For those who are unfamiliar with the process, the fueling tanker flies above and ahead of the receiving aircraft. It then transfers fuel using either the probe-and-drogue or the flying boom methods. The advantage of the probe-and-drogue method is that connecting to the receiving aircraft is less complicated than using the boom method. It uses a flexible hose, or probe, that trails from the tanker aircraft to the drogue (also called a para-drogue or basket), which is a fitting attached at its narrow end with a valve to a flexible hose. The drogue keeps the hose secure and serves as a funnel as it eases the insertion of the probe from the receiver aircraft into the hose.

The flying boom can make fuel transfer faster; however, this method requires a dedicated boom operator. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes a flying boom as “a rigid fuel pipe flexibly joined to the tail of a tanker airplane and fitted at its after end with airfoils, which are controllable from the tanker and which permit it to be guided into contact with an airplane being refueled in flight.” The boom operator guides the fuel pipe, which is flexibly joined to the tail of the tanker airplane, to the receiving aircraft.

From the first air-to-air refueling in 1923, and despite some mishaps, air refueling remained a goal worth achieving. In the early years, the U.S. Army did not consider the project worth funding, so private and commercial pilots continued to refine the process. Twelve years after that first air refueling, which enabled a plane to stay in flight for six hours, 38 minutes, air refueling had progressed to the point that a Curtiss Robin aircraft was able to stay in the air for 653 hours, 34 minutes!

Pilots in the United States were not the only ones who were interested in aerial refueling. Whereas the U.S. pilots’ goal was to increase the length of time aircraft could remain aloft, British pilots wanted to reduce the weight of fuel so the aircraft could carry more bombs.

Today’s U.S. warfighters and humanitarian mission crews rely primarily on two aircraft for refueling: the reliable KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender, which have been in use since 1957 and 1981, respectively. The KC-135 holds 100 tons of fuel, whereas the KC-10 holds 178 tons of fuel. Both aircraft use either probe-and-drogue or a flying boom to deliver fuel. The new KC-46A Pegasus Tanker is expected to eventually replace the KC-10 and some of the KC-135s. The KC-46 holds 106 tons of fuel and uses either wing air refueling pods and a centerline drogue system to deliver fuel.

The following are examples of missions that were made possible by air refueling:

  • Air refueling was crucial during the war in Vietnam. The distance of 7,100 nautical miles from Travis Air Force Base (AFB), CA, to Andersen AFB, Guam, and then 2,251 nautical miles farther to Saigon, South Vietnam, required all aircraft flying that route to be refueled in the air.
  • In 2016, the 618th Air Operations Center scheduled an air refueling to enable an emergency response team to fly nonstop from Moody AFB in Georgia to rescue the crew of a Taiwanese fishing boat that had caught fire approximately 500 miles southeast of Bermuda. “Air refueling extended the range and loiter time of the HC-130J (containing the rescue team) and prevented delays that would occur in a ground refueling,” said Lt Col James R. Woosely, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Commander.
  • In 2017, tanker crews from five bases on three continents provided aerial refueling for bombers in Libya who were targeting two Daesh training camps. These camps trained enemy troops to attack U.S. and allied interests in Europe and North Africa. “The air bridge our planners and tanker crews create enable U.S. and allied strike aircraft to continuously hit Daesh, or any enemy, no matter where they hide,” said then Brig Gen Lenny Richoux, 18th Air Force Vice Commander.

Air refueling extends the reach of today’s warfighters and humanitarian missions, thereby enriching the meaning of Full Spectrum Readiness. As an extended hand is a welcome assist to someone who cannot quite step over a stream, air refueling crews extend a helping hand to aircraft that cannot quite make it to their destination. Former AMC Command CMSgt Shelina Frey proudly stated, “From providing air refueling operations that enabled Air Force bombers to fly around the world in support of Operation Inherent Resolve; to the first Exercise Mobility Guardian; to airlifting humanitarian aid to Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico; to providing aeromedical evacuation for wounded service members serving in Afghanistan— Mobility Airmen delivered!”

They did—and do—indeed.