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22 ARW completes first 45-hour nonstop KC-46 flight around the world

  • Published
  • By Airman Paula Arce
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing

A 22nd Air Refueling Wing KC-46A Pegasus executed the world’s first nonstop, KC-46A Pegasus westbound circumnavigation endurance flight, called Project Magellan, June 29-July 1 starting and finishing here.

This flight was the latest Maximum Endurance Operation (MEO) for the KC-46A Pegasus, Air Mobility Command’s newest tanker aircraft.

Overall, MEOs extend aircraft missions in both time and aircrew, to enable greater capabilities and greater reach over greater distances. In doing so, MEOs enable Air Mobility Command to surge personnel, supplies and aircraft to sustain initial operations and project and connect the Joint Force, anywhere in the world. The foundation of Rapid Global Mobility is fuel, provided by tankers.

“Maximum Endurance Operations are all about overcoming the tyranny of distance: with a 48-hour duty day, you can literally fly across the world,” said Capt. Cody Donahue, 22nd Operations Group executive officer, who has been planning Project Magellan for months. “In an era of Great Power Competition, crews need the ability to operate longer than they have in the past, and Project Magellan is the next step in getting AMC crews experience in the game-changing new construct that is MEO.”

McConnell coordinated receiver aircraft during the mission to demonstrate its ability to operate as a tanker during MEO. During this flight, the KC-46 refueled Air Force B-2 Spirit bombers, C-17 Globemaster III airlifters, F-15E Strike Eagles and another KC-46.

The operation also exemplified Team McConnell’s progress in developing and advancing KC-46 capabilities, since receiving its first KC-46s in 2019.

Onboard the global KC-46 flight were: Col. Brent Toth, aircraft commander; Capt. Cody Donahue, instructor pilot; Capt. Daison Batangan, instructor pilot; Capt. T.J. Buckley, instructor plot; Master Sgt Jonathan Lauterbach instructor boom operator; Master Sgt Patrick Murray, instructor boom operator; Capt. Jacob Heyrend, flight surgeon; Staff Sgt Alejandro Melendez, flying crew chief; and Staff Sgt Dustin Shaffer, flying crew chief.

“It goes without saying that we will be accomplishing training in our primary roles as tanker pilots,” Donahue said. “Our pilots will be conducting multiple heavyweight onloads and our boom operators will be refueling several different types of aircraft throughout the flight.”

Team McConnell also exhibited its ability to Explode Into Theater – or multiple theaters in this case -- by coordinating with three other military bases around the world to pre-position several of the wing’s tankers to refuel the KC-46 enroute so it could fly for 45 hours straight. Two KC-46’s were sent to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, one KC-135 Stratotanker to RAF Mildenhall, England, and one KC-135 to the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility, in order to rendezvous with the globe-trotting aircraft to resupply their much-needed fuel. Backing up the 22nd ARW airbridge was a KC-135 from 100th ARW out of Mildenhall and a KC-135 deployed from the Utah Air National Guard.

“Not only is the duration of this sortie notable, but we are completing it with just two basic crews,” said Donahue. “Previously, three pilots were able to fly as an ‘augmented’ crew for up to 24 hours. Going forward, AMC is looking to have a crew of four pilots operating for up to 48 hours.”

The command remains focused on providing Mobility Air Forces warfighters with the resources and capabilities required to perform effectively during high-pace operational environment and max-endurance missions.

Namely, long duty days call for safety measures. Capt. Jacob Heyrend, 349th Air Refueling Squadron flight surgeon, was on board to ensure the health, safety and performance of the crew.

“Goals for this flight were to see the combined capabilities of a modern tanker and augmented crews, pushing the brink of human performance,” Heyrend said. “The final goal I had for the flight was to maintain crew, flight and mission safety and health as the aeromedical element.”

The crew collaborated with a third-party contractor to enroll the crew in a fatigue study. The contractors have experience working with elite sports professionals, NASA and other international space station astronauts.

“They utilize validated metrics, such as the Psychomotor Vigilance Testing,” Heyrend said. “The aircrew self-administered these tests at certain points in the sleep-wake cycle and when prompted by me, or self-initiated utilizing proprietary software. I also performed various ad hoc cognitive assessments in flight, many of which were components of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment. I observed task response as well to gain a whole person perspective of each crew member.”

The four pilots and two boom operators aboard the flight took turns resting and relieved their counterparts at set intervals, taking advantage of the built-in bunk beds on the tanker.

As the first main operating base for the KC-46, McConnell has refined its approach to the Air Force’s newest tanker to provide rapid airlift, air refueling and aeromedical evacuation for the Joint Force. Successfully flying its longest KC-46 MEO yet is a testament to the hard work of the Team McConnell Airmen.

"The 22nd ARW's recent MEO around the world showcased not only the unmatched endurance of the KC-46 aircraft, but also the incredible resilience and professionalism of our aircrew,” said Col. Cory Damon, 22nd ARW commander, who was onboard the final tanker refueling this worldwide KC-46 flight. “This mission was a true test of our capabilities and a shining example of the critical role our tankers play in providing fuel and support to the Joint Force. I'm incredibly proud of our team's achievement in pushing the boundaries of what our tankers and their crews can do, and I have no doubt that this historic mission will serve as a foundation for future maximum endurance operations and further solidify our position as a key enabler of global power projection.”

Also, on board that last tanker in the global airbridge refueling the around-the-world KC-46 flight was Brig. Gen. Gerald Donohue, Director of Operations, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, Headquarters Air Mobility Command, observing this latest demonstration of the KC-46’s capabilities to provide Rapid Global Mobility and Global Reach.

“Learning in training mitigates risk in crisis,” said Donohue. “This mission provided AMC another opportunity to learn lessons and capture best practices for increasing human performance during MEO. You need to look no further to see that the Mobility Air Forces are deadly serious about our role as the Joint Force maneuver.”