151st ARW pilots train NATO AWACS aircrews in Germany

  • Published
  • By Maj. Krista DeAngelis
  • 151st ARW/PA
Sitting in the dining room of the Hotel Jabusch, the Utah Air Guard KC-135 aircrew is all smiles as they reminisce about the day's mission that originated nearly 24 hours earlier in Salt Lake City and ended at Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany. It's been a long, exhausting day, yet spirits are high as the group orders a variety of schnitzels to kick off their two-week training rotation to Germany.

Throughout this mini deployment, 35 maintenance and operations Airmen from the 151st Air Refueling Wing have made the 10-hour trip to Europe to provide critical air refueling training to the NATO E-3 AWACS aircrews stationed at Geilenkirchen. These multinational NATO crews are made up of 11 nations and are preparing to deploy downrange in support of the International Security Assistance Force. The 151st ARW is just one of several Guard units that deploy each year to help train the AWACS aircrews, which allows them to perform their airborne surveillance and command and control missions. This year's training takes place from July 26 through August 7.

Upon arrival at Geilenkirchen, also known as "GK," the group is met by the very outgoing and knowledgeable Air National Guard Liaison Officer, Lt. Col. Dave McKinney. Colonel McKinney is the full-time liaison poised to provide logistics and support at any time to Guard KC-135 crews deploying out for the air refueling training missions.

"The ANGLO job is a three-year tour and a one-man show," Colonel McKinney explains. "I liaise between the NATO community here and the E-3 AWACS and the ANG KC-135 tankers. This operation has been going on for 15 years at GK and I'm the fourth full-time liaison. The job entails scheduling billeting, cars, and basically anything you have on a normal deployment."

The ANG has an 88-week contract to support the air refueling missions so various Guard units rotate in and out on a two-to three-week basis, he continued. The closest other unit the AWACS can use is Mildenhall, but because the operations tempo of the Air Force is so high, their KC-135s are used all over the place. The reason for the contract is because the AWACS community wanted dedicated air refueling for their crews.

But while the primary reason for the contract may be training for the AWACS crews, the KC-135 crews and maintainers also receive critical training they aren't able to get from flying and supporting stateside missions.

1st Lieutenant Dave Geerdes, a KC-135 co-pilot and a first-timer to GK, explains some of the challenges associated with flying missions overseas. "What makes it [the missions] demanding overseas is working with air traffic controllers with accents in their communications. We all speak English, however, sometimes things come out a little different and it makes it a little bit challenging to understand exactly what it is...we learn a little bit more about international relationships with the foreign receivers and not knowing exactly what to expect from them keeps you on your toes."

During the trip, the pilots aren't the only ones enjoying the location and cultural challenges. The maintenance crews are also having some fun of their own, not just with the local scenery, but with some of the aircraft's batteries, parts and engine issues.

"This mission has been interesting...and we've had a few unusual occurrences," said Master Sgt. Clint Hutchings, one of the wing's maintainers. "Sometimes you get deployments where everything is smooth and nothing is out of the ordinary, but this gives us an opportunity to exercise our maintenance [skills] that we've been taught back home and use it to fix broken aircraft."

Engine and battery issues allowed the maintainers to utilize their supply system to acquire new parts from other bases as well as enable some of the back-shop specialists to trouble-shoot some of the problems. With a variety of interesting challenges, the trip has enabled some of the wing's traditional maintenance Guardsmen to observe and deal with overseas maintenance issues firsthand.

"It's been a great experience here," said Sergeant Hutchings. "The workload is light enough so we can bring new traditional Guardsmen and not overwhelm them. If we were deployed to a forward location, the workload there can be so heavy and so constant that it sometimes overwhelms them...so this is a great opportunity."

And with the hard work and ingenuity of the wing's maintainers, the KC-135s have been able to successfully fly two missions a day during the first leg of the trip. Lt. Col. Boyd Badali, 191st Air Refueling Squadron's director of operations, has benefitted from the fruits of maintenance's labor by flying several of the week's missions.

"Today's mission went great, we rendezvoused on time with the NATO receiver aircraft and got a lot of training," explains Colonel Badali during the July 29 mission. "The rotation over here, just to sum it up, is fantastic training for everybody. We get the experience in deploying with the units ...both our operations and maintenance folks come overseas for vital training and the legs back and forth are just as important for training for the flyers as the legs here. The base is set up great to take care of us, the facilities are good and it's a win-win situation for everyone. I know the NATO AWACS are happy with us and its great training for the KC-135 Guard crews."

The first leg of the trip wrapped up on July 31 with a crew consisting of eight aircrew and maintainers, along with three public affairs personnel bidding a fond farewell to the scenic country that morning. As the plane flew over the quaint German homes and fields of green, there was a certain anticipation that could be felt for next year's deployment.

A swap-out aircraft is scheduled to fly into GK on August 2 to finish up the final week of training.