The Air Mobility Command operates out of the limelight but is a vital support system for the U.S. military. In a 13-day marathon of exercises, service members gather in Washington to hone their skills.
FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE — As America wages war in Iraq and Syria, the Air Force’s aging fleets of refueling tankers rarely grab the limelight.
Yet every five minutes, one of these tankers takes off to perform tightly choreographed midair refueling operations that allow fighter jets and other aircraft to continue their missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
“I think this is the best job in the world — it never gets old,” said Senior Airman Joel Perez, who operates the boom of a KC-10 tanker that can deliver up to 1,100 gallons of fuel per minute to an aircraft in need of a refill.
Early Tuesday evening, he sat in the rear of a KC-10 where he operates the boom controls, and peered through a large plexiglass window. Down below, he tracked the movements of a C-17 Globemaster — a huge cargo plane — that flew in lockstep, and in prime position to receive fuel.
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Perez, who is with the 6th Air Refueling Squadron from Travis Air Force Base in California, is one of more than 3,500 military personnel from across the country — as well as representatives from some 30 nations — in Washington state this month to participate in a $2.5 million Air Force training exercise
The 13-day exercise began July 31. It is organized by the Illinois-based Air Mobility Command, which acts like a kind of global dispatcher that sends refueling, cargo planes, air-medevac and other assets to support the military, humanitarian aid work and scientific research.
With two air bases on either side of the state, Washington plays a key role in this command. Just south of Tacoma, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a major hub for the C-17 aircraft, and Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane is the largest base for the oldest fleet of refueling tankers — the KC-135s.
Pace of deployments
For many those serving under the Air Mobility Command, the pace of deployments has not eased in recent years, despite the drawdown of most U.S. ground forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The deployments piled on top of other demands of the Air Force have put a strain on active-duty men and women as well as those in guard and reserve units, which are frequently called on to assist in missions.
“We made assumptions going forward … that we were going to be able to take a peace dividend,” said Maj. Gen. Tom Sharpy, vice commander of the Air Mobility Command. “But I think the challenges have grown, not diminished … We don’t have enough capacity on a daily basis to meet demand.”
Sharpy says that’s made it hard to keep people. Airlines, for example, hire away promising young aircrew. “Whenever I go out and talk to young airmen who are considering leaving, they tell me because they are gone too much. And, when they are home, they are working too much,” he said.
Training exercises such as the one this month in Washington add to the time away.
But Sharpy and other officials in attendance Tuesday view the Washington exercise as an important effort. It enables Air Force, Army and Navy personnel — as well as some from other nations — to practice working together, and teams up veterans with younger crew.
On Tuesday, the exercises included aerial drops of supplies at a remote desert site outside of Yakima and a demonstration of a C-17 evacuation of patients.
Late in the afternoon, Sharpy and other officers, along with reporters and Air Force guests, took seats in a tanker for a flight from Fairchild to McChord. The initial goal was to demonstrate midair refueling.
The tankers that conduct refueling are the most-in-demand of any of the Air Mobility Command assets. During the year that ended last Sept. 30, 456 aircraft conducted midair refueling of some 110,000 aircraft over the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The average age of the KC-135s based at Fairchild is more than 50 years old.
And the average age of the KC-10s, such as the Travis Air Force Base aircraft selected Tuesday for the demonstration, is around 30.
Boeing, at Everett, is building a new tanker — the KC-46 — that will have many new capabilities. The first of these new tankers is scheduled to be delivered to the Air Force this year, with a total of 179 coming in the years ahead in orders worth more than $40 billion.
In the meantime, maintenance and crew skills help keep the old aircraft flying, and for the most part, operating smoothly.
Still, sometimes things go awry.
Last November, a sheared part caused a boom to break off a KC-10 and drop into a field in Idaho, according to an Air Force Investigation.
On Tuesday, before the KC-10 took off from Fairchild, a crew member announced the aircraft’s boom was broken, and couldn’t be repaired in time for the flight exercise. So the crews of the tanker and the C-17, which was cruising just below, demonstrated their flying skills. This time, there was no transfer of fuel.