AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --
Seventeen Airmen look around themselves with excitement and curiosity, taking in the sheer volume of equipment and technology around them as they climb into the cockpit of a KC-135 Stratofortress. Most of them have never seen the inside of a military aircraft, despite the fact that they are members of the world’s largest Air Force.
Slowly, the group made their way to their seats, waiting in silence as the refueling aircraft prepared for takeoff. The engines roared to life and the hatch closed. Airmen looked around them, taking in as much as they could – the sound of the engines that drowned out all other noise, the miles of wires that seemed to wrap around them, the harsh rays of light that streamed in through foggy glass windows and left the surrounding mechanics shining vividly against the dull metal behind them.
Finally, the aircraft lurched into movement, making its way along the runway slowly. After a final turn, the aircraft picked up speed making all onboard bump into one another as they sat. The tires picked up off the ground and the Airmen were in the air.
“I had never been on an in-flight military aircraft prior to this incentive flight and it was nothing short of amazing!” said Staff Sgt. Monique Torres, 379th Expeditionary Comptroller Squadron cashier clerk. Torres was one of the Airmen that participated on the flight. “I kept observing the… boom-operator and thinking to myself, ‘this Senior Airman has to have one of the coolest jobs ever.’”
For many of the Airmen, this was a unique experience. They came from all over the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, most from units where flying simply was not a part of their jobs. Fortunately for them the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron was able to plan an orientation flight, allowing them to fly when it is otherwise impossible.
Lt. Col. Alfred McNabb, 340th EARS commander, jumped at the chance to host an orientation flight when he learned that there was an upcoming mission that met all the requirements. This was the first orientation flight that has taken place in over a year.
“Our missions almost always take us into hostile zones, in which we need approval from above the wing level to turn it into an orientation flight,” said McNabb. “This was the first mission we’ve received that wasn’t in a hostile area; we flew over the Arabian Gulf.”
For McNabb, this flight was a way to show the wing exactly what goes on during an air refueling flight, but more importantly, also allowed the 340th EARS to show their appreciation to the Airmen that support the squadron behind the scenes.
“This kind of thing allows for Airmen to see that they are a part of something greater,” said the commander. “It gives them a perspective that they might not have had before. All of these other agencies that they are a part of directly support our operations out in the field.”
After a few hours of flying, the Airmen were notified by the crew that F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft had arrived, and led them in pairs to the back of the KC-135 where the boom operator was coordinating with the pilots.
The F-16’s arrived and flew on either side of the Stratotanker, breaking off one by one to refuel. The pilots were greeted by the boom operator and two Airmen lying down beside him, watching as the fighter would slowly make its way to the boom to get fuel.
“As a [non-flyer], the opportunity to get onboard and watch as the KC-135 refueled twelve F-16’s was incredibly awesome,” said Torres. “It made me excited to support such incredible missions and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
The orientation flight gave the Airmen onboard a great view of what they are a part of, and the missions that the United States Air Force carries out.
“As an airman in command post, I deal with the mission planning and monitoring,” said Senior Airman Melissa Bounanducci, a 379th AEW command post controller, who flew on the KC-135. “We always deal with the departures and arrivals, I never get to see or be a part of the actual flying piece. It was really awesome to see where all the cogs connect from mission preparation to mission execution.”
The flight lasted over five hours, and the Stratotanker refueled twelve F-16’s twice, giving the Airmen onboard ample opportunity to view the refueling. After the refueling finished, the Stratotanker banked hard, turning around completely and heading back to its point of origin full of Airmen packed with new experiences.
“We really appreciate what all the Airmen on this base do,” said McNabb. “We just really wanted to help them understand what they are a part of, and we wanted to give back to them. They are all cogs in a machine, and if one of those cogs fell apart, none of us can do our jobs.”