When the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron crew stepped into their large tanker aircraft for a recent mission and departed the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, they believed they had just begun another "normal" day over Afghanistan.
This day, however, proved to be anything but normal as the crew found themselves in a unique situation, literally acting as a wingman to a much smaller fighter jet in trouble.
Capt. Michael Thomson, a 22 EARS pilot who was acting as an observer during this mission, said the day was part of standard operations in the assigned area. As the crew prepared to support their last regularly scheduled fighter aircraft, a radio transmission from the lead aircraft, apprised the team of a sudden change of plans.
"The lead explained they were engaged in a troops in contact scenario and 'my wingman will be up for gas shortly,'" he said. "The lead moved into position, received the needed fuel and returned to the battlespace, then we waited for the other jet."
Moments passed as the KC-135 Stratotanker's Liberando crew awaited the second jet. Moments turned into minutes and concern began to build among the refueling crew.
Lt. Col. Aaron Wardlaw, 22 EARS aircraft commander, made several attempts to contact the wingman on the air refueling frequency to no avail. Moments later, he saw the aircraft move around its 9-o'clock position and maneuver to the astern refueling position when the crew heard, "visual, request astern" crackling, barely audible over the tanker's radio.
Knowing something wasn't right, 22 EARS boom operator Senior Master Sergeant Keith Werner isolated radio contact with the fighter jet's pilot, establishing clearer communications.
"How are things going?" Werner said.
"The only thing working on this jet is my engine," replied the fighter pilot.
"Not the reply you want to hear, at altitude, over hostile territory," said Airman 1st Class Frank Pappalardo, a 22 EARS boom operator, who was assigned to observe the flight.
After the words echoed through the KC-135, the crew immediately began a closely-coordinated multitasking dance to gear up for potential emergency contingencies.
"By asking ourselves, 'What can we do and how can we support?' we prepared for any scenario and ensured we were able to provide immediate support," Wardlaw said.
While taking on the initial fuel load, the stricken pilot told the crew he had engaged with troops on the ground and asked the boom operators to look his jet over for any possible battle damage. The two boom operators checked the fighter for damage simultaneously as the aircraft commander and copilot, Maj. Jody Griffin, teamed to ensure navigation airspace kept them out of bordering countries, while maintaining fuel transfer to the aircraft.
The team worked to provide a stable platform to support the fighter off their wingtip within the assigned airspace at a constant speed and altitude. The pilot observer, Thomson, utilized the satellite radio to obtain up-to-date weather reports for possible landing airfields within the area of responsibility.
As the team worked in-flight emergency scenarios, the common theme remained, "He needs help; we're all he's got right now. We have to deliver," Wardlaw said.
The Liberandos delivered during crunch time, guiding the aircraft through a series of specific maneuvers to reset the on-board flight computers and allowing the pilot to regain effective communications and navigational instruments.
"It's all about taking care of your own," Wardlaw said. "While we may operate different platforms, ultimately he's a fellow Airman who needed our help on a bad day."
Thomson said the tanker crew didn't do anything special that day, just provide a little extra support and fuel while coordinating command and control information.
" It's our ability to provide air refueling that ensures a continued, minimal response time for direct support of coalition service members on the ground," Thomson said. " That makes us all one team."
Article by Capt. Martha L. Petersante, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs