Alaska Air National Guard refuels C-130 at 20,000 feet

The 168th Wing briefs each other about the day’s flight and timeline on Feb. 27 during Arctic Eagle 20. The 168th briefings such as these help units sync together and go over safety precautions and keep their communications tight. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Kierra Harris)
March 02, 2020

EILSON AFB, Alaska — Pilots crowded around a long, wooden table inside a briefing room early on the morning of Feb. 27 to receive their mission. The day’s tasks: a series of touch-and-go landings followed by mid-air refueling.

The KC-135 Stratotanker crews prepared to board would meet up with a C-130 Hercules in the air over Fairbanks, Alaska, to pass fuel, which would allow the C-130 to push further north as part of Arctic Eagle 20, a joint, multinational, arctic exercise being conducted across Alaska and hosted by the Alaska National Guard.

This act, known colloquially as “random air refueling,” is just one skill that these highly trained experts keep in constant practice, alongside other technical maneuvers. In theory, the action is a simple one. The KC-135 is equipped with a long, remote controlled boom that enables it to move fuel from its tanks to those of a properly-equipped friendly aircraft. The C-130 simply pulls up behind and below, and maneuvers itself into position, where the boom links with a port above the cockpit.

“We’ll be at 20,000 feet over the Fairbanks VOR [local navigational area], and we’ll meet up with them [the C-130],” said Capt. Julie Keeney, an Alaska National Guardsman and pilot with the 168th Air Wing.

The reality, however, is that the aircraft are a combined 230 feet long, and each is moving in excess of 240 miles per hour. Careful piloting and constant radio communication allows the two aircraft to act as one in the hands of the operators.

Ultimately, the lynchpin of a refueling operation is the boom operator, an airman who lies prone in a special cradle and directs the movement of both aircraft as well as the boom itself. Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Sartin is one such operator, an Alaska National Guardsman of 10 years, who has been stationed out of Eilson since 2013.

“Instead of sitting in an office, and just sitting at a desk, I get to go fly every day and refuel airplanes at high speed,” Sartin said. “It’s pretty awesome.”

The refueling mission was a small but vital piece of the larger exercise, and one of many such pieces that together allow a massive, multinational effort to be successful.

The difficulty inherent in performing such aerial feats seems nothing short of a miracle, but for these professionals, it’s just another day at work.