KC-135 crew on point in Afghan skies

By Matt Benedetti

A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels an A-10 Thunderbolt over Afghanistan, Aug. 2, 2012. The 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Alexandria Mosness)

KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (AFNS) — From the window of her “office,” Senior Airman Brittany Bahner breathes deeply and takes in the view of the brown, arid expanse near Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. She waits patiently, lying prone in the boom pod at the rear of the KC-135 Stratotanker, while communicating through her headset with the pilots at the other end of the aircraft.

Suddenly, an A-10 Thunderbolt II appears in the boom siting window, moving in from the port side of the KC-135 against the desert backdrop, and steadily positions itself directly behind the larger refueler. After a moment and with careful precision, Bahner swiftly maneuvers the boom and achieves a positive connection with the attack aircraft. She calmly states, “contact” on the interplane radio, signaling the beginning of the refueling process that will allow the A-10 to immediately resume close air support operations instead of returning to base.

Boom operators like Bahner are part of a three-person crew who operate the KC-135 aircraft and take pride in providing aerial refueling capability directly to the fight.

“I am proud to support the mission in this capacity. We are actually up there over Afghanistan seeing things firsthand and it is rewarding,” said Bahner, a native of Yucca Valley, Calif., who is deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. “It can be stressful at times, particularly when we experience turbulence or if the weather is poor and we are moving all over the place,” she said.

Bahner, who cross-trained into the boom operator career field, does not regret the transition

“I worked at a desk job for five years but decided to try something different and cross-trained into boom operator. I really love the job and it changes daily,” she said. “Some days we will refuel several different receivers urgently needing assistance. Refueling is a rewarding mission because we know that we are helping coalition forces firsthand,” said Bahner.

Capt. Christopher Knaute, a KC-135 pilot, appreciates the flexibility required by the crew during sorties over Afghanistan.

“It is not uncommon for us to travel a great distance to multiple places with different types of receivers. We always have a game plan but like most things in the military, conditions change and we adapt to those changes,” said Knaute, a native of Houston who is deployed from McConnell AFB, Kan.

“If someone needs fuel, they should get it at a moment’s notice. It is always better to have the fuel capability airborne rather than on the ground. That’s what we do,” he said.

Knaute is cognizant of their mission’s immediate impact on ground operations. Air refueling makes it possible to keep strike and reconnaissance aircraft airborne longer, providing a quicker response time to troops in harm’s way.

“Troops in contact request air support and we are able to make it happen, it is definitely a linear equation,” he said. “You hear the urgency in a pilot’s voice when plans are changing. The sooner we get receivers the fuel, the quicker they can assist the troops on the ground. We are buying time and ultimately saving lives.”

Knaute and Bahner are both members of the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The 22 EARS is the second largest refueling squadron in the U.S. Air Force and provides one-third of the air refueling for coalition aircraft supporting international efforts in Afghanistan.

The Transit Center, a transportation and logistics hub, is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing. The wing operates around-the-clock missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom that include air refueling of coalition aircraft, airlift of supplies and equipment, onward movement of coalition personnel and strengthening of local partnerships.

Knaute enjoys serving at the Transit Center due to the fact that he has the opportunity to meet the very troops he is supporting.

“It is a rewarding and incredible feeling to meet Soldiers who have been downrange and may have benefitted from our efforts,” said Knaute.

Bahner expanded those thoughts as she explained her approach to the mission after another successful sortie.

“I am focused on my job while we are flying but afterwards, during our debriefing, we will count the number of strikes and the troops in contact that were supported by our fuel. At that point, you have the opportunity to reflect and consider the impact we made during the mission,” she said.

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