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Utah tankers keep aircraft flying over Afghanistan

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Henderson, 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, explains refueling operations during an interview after a refueling mission in support in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Sept. 8, 2010. Sergeant Henderson is deployed from the 151st Air Refueling Wing with the Utah Air National Guard. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris, U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs)

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Henderson, 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, explains refueling operations during an interview after a refueling mission in support in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, Sept. 8, 2010. Sergeant Henderson is deployed from the 151st Air Refueling Wing with the Utah Air National Guard. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris, U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs)

ARLINGTON, Va. -- High in the skies of Afghanistan, KC-135R Stratotanker crews work long hours supporting other types of aircraft as an aerial refueling point, giving those assets the ability to continue their missions.

"Our job is to provide air refueling support for aircraft like the F-15 [Eagle] and F-16 [Falcon]," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Smith of the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing. "We provide fuel to them to extend in the area much longer than they could otherwise."

Sometimes their job can make the difference between life and death.

"There have been times during fire-fights, when air support has been called in by a guy on the ground, and you don't want that pilot to have to say he needs to return for fuel," said Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Henderson, also from the unit. "Ultimately, we're there to support the guys in boots and on the ground."

Both men say that refueling fighters and heavies, who support personnel on the ground, is the most important and rewarding part of their mission, and it takes not only a skilled refueling crew to get the job done, but also a skilled receiver pilot who knows what he's doing.

"Obviously, boom operators are the ones who make the connection, but if the receiver can position the aircraft right, it makes everything a lot simpler," said Henderson.

The operation is simple: Two pilots in the front of the aircraft conduct the rendezvous with the receiver aircraft, and the boom operator in the back of the plane, laying on his stomach, operates the boom with a joystick as the receiver comes up for the fuel.

"Up front, we control the pumps and the amount of fuel that is given, while the boom operator makes sure there is good contact with the other airplane," said Smith.

A good refueling crew can make mid-air refueling seem simple, but there are a few things crews have to pay attention to and adjust for, if they want to have a smooth operation.

"One of the most important things is listening up to the radio," said Henderson. "Being on your headset is pretty much key to the whole operation, and your tasking for refueling might change, so you really have to be in tune to what's is coming up to you.

"What's scheduled, and what actually happens, can be two very different things, so you have to be fluid."

When it comes to operating the actual boom, Henderson said that depth perception is key "to make a good connection, especially when there is changing light, because this is when your eyes can play tricks on you."

"Obviously in the daytime, you can see what's going on, and at night you can pretty much also see, but depth perception is always key," he said.

Henderson added that going through your checklist and having everything set up is also important.

Though their mission is not engaging enemy combatants, what tanker crews do is just as important as any other missions operating in the skies above Afghanistan.

"The job that we're assigned to do is very fulfilling," said Smith. "We fly sorties every day, supporting other tactical airplanes who need the fuel to sustain their operations.

"We feel very much a part of the operation."