Utah ANG conducts crucial air refueling training with NATO allies in Germany

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  • By Staff Sgt. Annie Edwards
  • 151ARW/PA
Three aircrews and 19 maintenance personnel from the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing spent two weeks at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen, Germany, providing much-needed air refueling support during training flights for NATO E-3A pilots Jan. 4-16.

The E-3A component, made up of members from 15 different countries, operates Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft which are used primarily for surveillance, as well as command, control and communications. These surveillance flights can often last more than 10 hours and require air refueling for completion.

"The air refueling is used to extend our time on station, meaning we can provide a longer time on station and therefore provide a longer air picture to the receiving units," said Lt. Col. Frank Bareither, branch chief for flight technicians with the E-3A training wing.

As the primary providers for training and refueling experience for the AWACS crews, the Air National Guard deploys air refueling units for two-week rotations to practice aerial refueling and maintain the pilots' currency in this crucial skill.

"To get the air refueling done, since it is really the highest complexity of flying skills, we need that training," Bareither said.

During air refueling, the two aircraft are approximately 40 feet apart.

"Every pilot needs to be very proficient; there is not much room for error, so every pilot needs to practice a lot," said Capt. Justin Christiansen, a pilot with the 191st Air Refueling Squadron. "We come and allow them that practice and get everybody used to it for when they really need to use it."

The Air Guard maintenance personnel ensured the KC-135R aircraft were refueled, inspected and ready for flight. The group consisted of crew chiefs and personnel from several sections, including the engine shop, supply, communications and navigation, guidance and control, hydraulics, electrical, sheet metal, and one maintenance operation controller.

The trip to Germany afforded some of the part-time maintenance personnel an opportunity to gain experience they otherwise would not have had during their regular drill weekends.

"It allows us to do a lot of training for our traditional Guardsmen," said Chief Master Sgt. Gary Eisert, maintenance chief with the 151st Maintenance Group. "They get two weeks' worth of hands-on aircraft maintenance, where they don't get that much when they're back home."

The group faced several challenges while in Germany, including the language barrier and working in an unfamiliar environment, as well as challenging weather conditions that caused some flight delays and cancellations for the AWACS and the KC-135 aircraft.

"There are multiple languages being spoken and that translates into English in different ways, so understanding the pilots and their requirements or requests and also understanding the controllers is sometimes difficult," said Capt. Eric Cronk, a pilot with the 191st Air Refueling Squadron.

In addition to benefiting the NATO mission and AWACS crews, the trip was also a valuable training opportunity for the Utah Air Guard members.

Christiansen said that, while challenging, flying in this weather gave them the opportunity to improve their skills in different conditions.

"This benefits the Utah Air National Guard and myself personally by providing experiences outside of what we normally see in the states," said Cronk. "It puts us in more of a global work force and provides great training for real-world situations."