JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. , April 21, 2017 —
Off the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., amidst sunny April skies, boom operators with the 459th Air Refueling Wing peer out of the boom-pod window of a KC-135 Stratotanker. Headed straight for them, at speeds nearing 350 mph, is a gleaming, white, fixed-wing aircraft.
As it gets closer, Chief Master Sgt. Frankie Rollins, 756th Air Refueling Squadron superintendent and boom operator, readies himself to conduct an in-flight refueling. When the aircraft comes within 25 to 30 feet of the boom pod, it slows to about 315 mph, and Rollins uses a joystick to extend the boom arm toward a small receiving port on the top of the fuselage. Mindful of wind and aircraft movements, Rollins carefully maneuvers the arm into place. Contact! The receiver latches onto the boom and is ready to be refueled.
The 459th ARW, stationed out of Joint Base Andrews, Md., helped make history last week when its KC-135 was the first to operationally refuel a P-8 Poseidon belonging to the Naval Air Systems Command from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
“The 459th ARW and the Air Force Reserve Command is honored and delighted to support the Navy on the P-8 project,” said Lt. Col. David Williams, 459th Operations Group deputy group commander. “We have a longstanding relationship with NAVAIR and we were excited to play a role in assisting the engineers with the development of the boom refueling capabilities of the P-8.”
As the Navy’s newest aircraft for maritime patrol and reconnaissance, it is important the P-8 is able to sustain flight for lengthy periods of time.
“The intent behind the aerial refueling capability on the P-8 is to enhance strategic mission effectiveness by extending the range and endurance of the platform,” said Cmdr. Shannon Hoover, Naval Air Forces Atlantic VX-1 Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron P-8A operational test director. “The team has completed operational tests on the integration of the AGM-84 Harpoon [missile system] for surface warfare and [multi-static active acoustic search systems] integration used in anti-submarine warfare.”
Prior to contacting the 459th ARW for tanker support, pilots with NAVAIR underwent rigorous training toward in-flight refueling certification: a skillset unfamiliar to many Navy aircrew members.
“We are coming from a community that has never had an organic tanking capability, so we are learning how to get this done,” said Hoover. “The pilots completed ground school, as well as a simulator training course, both in the E-6 Mercury and the P-8 Operational Flight Trainers. When it came time to start scheduling a tanker to take us to the next phase of training…we reached out to the 459th.”
A strategic military capability a year in the making, members of the 459th worked closely with NAVAIR, the VX-20 Developmental Test Squadron and VX-1 to bring the complexities of the refueling mission to fruition.
“We provided multiple incentive flights to engineers for research, held face-to-face briefings between the chief boom, standards and evaluations technicians and Navy test pilots and engineers, coordinated communication between Navy and AFRC leadership, and transported equipment and personnel to Edwards [Air Force Base, California] for testing,” said Rollins.
With the successful completion of the first P-8 refueling mission, the 459th ARW and the P-8 community are looking forward to strengthening their partnership with future refuelings. According to Rollins, they plan to conduct day and night training missions with the P-8 once a week.
“We are looking forward to a long-standing relationship with the entire team at the 459th ARW as we continue to train and test,” said Hoover. “We are partners in bringing this capability to the fleet. It will take both a P-8 and a KC-135 to get this done, and the 459th ARW has been great to work with in helping us get there.”
The P-8 is only the second Navy aircraft to be equipped to receive fuel mid-flight from a U.S. Air Force tanker; the first being the E-6 Mercury nearly 30 years ago.