First in AETC: KC-46s refuel F-16 fighters

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Robert Sizelove
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

In a first for Air Education and Training Command and the 56th Air Refueling Squadron, two KC-46 Pegasus aircraft from the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, along with 10 F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 49th Wing at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, teamed up in the skies over New Mexico to train and practice air refueling operations. 

Air refueling is part of worldwide air mobility and a tool for military operations around the globe. It enables both combat and non-combat related missions, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The training flight on December 7, 2020 marked the first time an AETC KC-46 made contact with and transferred fuel to a fighter aircraft.

Maj. Robert Jurgensmeier, 56th ARS KC-46 evaluator pilot and lead aircraft commander of the two-ship formation, said this accomplishment is important in establishing the future operability of the KC-46 weapon system.

“The schoolhouse sets the standard for others to follow. This is even more important in the KC-46,” he explained. “We need to set the baseline in a new aircraft. This requires us to think and operate differently than we do with legacy tankers. We need to make sure to get it right, since what we set as the standard will be used for many years to come.”

Staff Sgt. Amy James, 56th ARS KC-46 Formal Training Unit instructor boom operator, said refueling aircraft from Holloman provided a unique chance to demonstrate interoperability between Airmen from different bases.

“Since we started flying the KC-46 we haven’t had a chance to work with units outside of Altus,” she said. “Hopefully the success of this flight will open up more opportunities for the 56th and other fighter wings to work with us.”

Jungensmeier previously served as a KC-135 Stratotanker instructor pilot before he began piloting the KC-46. He said that, while performing in-air refueling with the KC-46 is easier than the KC-135 under the same circumstances due to the Pegasus’ advanced tracking systems, refueling fighter aircraft provides a tougher challenge than larger aircraft do.

“The KC-135 was old school in tracking fighters. It was a lot of fast mental math and tracking via paper and pencil. With the KC-46, the aircraft does more tracking of the receiver callsigns, the fuel offloaded and the fuel available.”

“Refueling fighters is busier than heavy aircraft,” he continued. “As the tanker, you are responsible for the safe operation of the formation, which becomes more difficult as more fighters join up. You need to be able to direct traffic, not just de-conflict traffic.”

James said that, while refueling ten fighters provided a new challenge, she found the experience refreshing.

“This flight in particular was busy compared to our normal training sorties in terms of directing ten receivers to two tankers on one radio frequency,” she said. “It was a nice change of pace to work with the F-16s. Something about refueling fighters feels more energizing and morale boosting.”