Yesterday was my first flight in over a month.  And whoa! what a flight! Actually, it was technically two sorties.  It was probably the most physically challenging flight I’ve ever made. 

     I wasn’t originally going to get to fly at all this month.  I’ll explain briefly:

     The wing has two squadrons out of town for about six weeks, so the schedule was reduced to a pittance.  We don’t have many maintainers here, so we’ve basically been flying four jets (and four pilots) twice per day but running the jets through the hot pits.  Using the hot pits gets the jets gas without having to shut off the engine (or engines, if you happen to fly an aircraft with more than one of them).  This saves the maintainers the trouble of doing through-flight inspections and getting the jets set up for a second go.  The pilot can then get two "RAP counters" this way in just one day; that is to say you can get two training flights that count toward your monthly total (five in my case).

     Last week we also got a call from the 909 ARS at Kadena asking if we wanted tanker support this week.  Since we’re trying to fly off quite a few flying hours, we were only too happy to oblige! That, and we’re allowed by regulation to count two training sorties (maximum) when we hit the tanker.

     Now, as I was saying, I wasn’t going to get to fly at all.  As of the end of last week, I would have had to have taken one of the four aircraft for two days in order to "Make RAP."  I wasn’t the only pilot in this situation, but some of the others that hadn’t made RAP were line pilots and needed to make RAP to be considered combat mission ready.  As an attached pilot, I only need to maintain basic mission capability, so I am not ever really the top priority for flights.  Since I would have taken up four sorties when I only needed three and some of the line guys really did need four, scheduling basically wrote me off as a loss.  However, when it became clear that we could launch, train, hit a tanker, train; then land, hit the hot pits, take off, and train again, RAP for me became obtainable within that one day, and bingo! I was on the schedule again!

     The weather yesterday was foggy, and the forecaster was calling it scattered from the surface to 100′, then overcast from 100′-7,000′.  Odd, it didn’t look that bad on the drive in to work! Lt Col Z (yes, the same Lt Col Z that I flew with the last two times (both BFM hops)) briefed up the mission(s), and sure enough, by step time the actual weather was 500′ broken, with tops at about 2,000′.  We walked away from the desk thinking we needed to carry enough fuel to divert to Yokota, which meant we’d have to either go straight to the tanker or get straight back to the field.  Yokota is nearly an hour away and we were only carrying just under two hours worth of gas.  Once we got ready to take off, the weather improved even more and the field went IFR Chitose, which was much closer and meant we could spend some gas training instead of looking for the tanker immediately.  Off we went!   

     When we arrived in our designated airspace, we started with a heat-to-guns exercise, then three 3K sets, then a 6K, and then started looking for the tanker.  I did okay considering that was the first aerial refueling (AAR) I’d done since late 2003! I’d like to say it’s like riding a bicycle, but it’s not exactly that simple.  Still, I didn’t fall off the boom; the only trouble I had was the second hack (with a different KC-135) I wasn’t quite as stable as the first time and the boomer had to radio for me to back up about 2′ for him to fly the boom to my jet. 

     In between tanking sessions, we got about three 9K sets, or maybe it was four, or five.  It was a lot more than we usually got to do, that was for certain! I was regularly hitting 7.8-8.0 Gs on the offense, and all I was doing was offense.  By the time we did the last one, I was ready for a break! Luckily for me we were bingo, so we headed back to Misawa! We were on the ground within 15 minutes and began the trip to the pits. 

     Yesterday was also the first time I’d hit the hot pits since 2003, but since this only involves parking the jet after taxiing around for awhile, it’s not nearly as challenging.  Not that AAR is particularly challenging, but it’s easier to get gas at 0 knots and 1 G than it is at 310 knots and 1 G (or 1.1 G if the tanker is in a turn).  The trick to the hot pits was that I’d never been to the ones at Misawa, so although I’d read the procedure, I’d never actually done it; that’s often where funny stories about other people come from, when they’re doing something they’ve never done before.  So I kept on guard a little more than usual.  I also wolfed down a granola bar and most of the water I’d brought with me.  After about 25 minutes on the ground, we were ready to launch again.

     We only ended up being aloft for 40 minutes total for the second sortie, which meant we got about 25 minutes of training time.  We did one more 9K, then two notch-to-high aspect sets.  We finished off with a 6K defensive set, then we were both bingo again, so we safed up all our simulated switches and pointed towards homeplate.

     At the end of the mission, as I was filling out the forms, I calculated our flight time as 2.4 hours.  I think there were at least eight sets of 7+ G maneuvering and fighting.  When I’m wearing all my flight gear, I probably weigh close to 190 pounds.  At 7 G, that’s equivalent to 1,330 pounds (605 kg).  If you’re interested in approximating the experience. . . well, you can’t.  The best I can tell you to do is to go to Estes Park, Colorado and go for a 5 mile hike.  Make sure to carry one extra person along with you for at least eight minutes while sprinting uphill (space out the sprints however you like).  Yes, I said carry the other person.  Oh! Hopefully you brought your favorite video game along with you.  Make sure you’re playing that while you’re sprinting!

     Say, did I mention that if you lose the game I’m training for, there is no reset button?

     Man! Do I love my job!

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8 Responses to Fight-Tank-Fight-Tank-Fight-Pit-Fight

  1. Anwyn says:

    So am I understanding you that the AF is having trouble making sure its pilots have enough flight time and support to make monthly training standards?

    My dad was a tanker pilot. Nice to hear some stories from the other side. 🙂

  2. Chris Penningroth says:


         That’s getting to be the shape of it. Our problem right now is a couple of maintenance specialties are less-than-critically manned. We’ve got too many airplanes, too many pilots, and not enough maintainers to generate sorties.

         I think the problem will be ‘fixed’ in about 1-2 years. We’re going to start moving pilots out of fighters and into both special ops and unmanned systems. We’ll still have too many airplanes for awhile.

         Thanks for posting! Tell your Dad "NKAWTG!" He’ll know what it means!

  3. Anwyn says:

    Will do. I assume “G” is gas … when I was little they were still taking the wives on occasional flights. My mom used to mention how she fell asleep in the boom pit.

    Do you think moving pilots out, rather than support in, is the right answer?

  4. Chris Penningroth says:

         Correct! One down, five to go! (Seriously though, it means ‘No Kick @$$ Without Tanker Gas’)

         In today’s world of constrained budgets, I’m afraid moving pilots out is the only feasible answer (the other weapons systems do need pilots, after all). If cash and time weren’t a factor, I’d say getting more maintainers would be a good answer. The other reality the Air Force is having to face is that with smart bombs getting smaller, we can carry more of them per aircraft, therefore we don’t need quite as many aircraft to take out whatever targets need to be struck. The F-22 is proving itself similarly capable in the air-to-air fight (refer to my article on the Global Hawk urban legend about a month ago). We really can do more with less.

         It’s not the same story with the Army and the Marines. It still takes about one squad per street to control it, and I’m not sure that wasn’t true from the Greek Phalanx through the Roman Legion to WWII to now. The more streets you need to control, the more boots on the ground you need. The Air Force can help a whole lot, but we still haven’t figured out a way for a fighter jet to help an old lady across the donkey cart path while shooing away insurgents. Ergo, the Army and Marines are getting more of the budget share these days. In many ways rightly so. If only we could just get the budget increased. . . .

         The tankers still take wives on incentive flights. I almost managed to hook up a bunch of Misawa wives with flights from the 909 ARS. Then the 909 decided at the last minute they couldn’t land here, so we missed out. We were bummed, but we’ll try again sometime!

  5. Anwyn says:

    And do the wives get to go up in two-seat -16s, too? Now THAT would rock.

    I’m still a bit stunned at the implications of the things you’re talking about–I hadn’t realized good ol’ USAF was so constrained that fighter pilots went four years without midair refueling. That seems a tad dangerous, no?

    Ah well. All the bases we were stationed at when I was a kid are either fully closed or keep Reserve or Guard wings only. Different world. My dad sat alert for about one week out of four most of my growing up years until Bush Sr. put a stop to it. But the Guard over at PDX still sends the Eagles of the Columbia out on Memorial Day and the Fourth–heard the -15s go screaming over this morning but couldn’t get outside in time to spot them. 🙂

  6. Chris Penningroth says:

         We are only allowed to taxi the wives around in the ‘Family model.’ Once per year or so the Squadron will get everyone together and we’ll put the spouses in the back seat, lower the canopy, crank the motor, cruise out to the runway, plug in the blower, and get running to the tune of 100 knots, but we never leave the ground. It’s a little cheesy, but the gals seem to enjoy it. (The preponderance of spouses are of the female persuasion, but we have the occassional male married to a lady fighter pilot who hops in for the taxi ride).

         Sorry. . . I haven’t refueled in four years because I was in a non-flying assignment from 2004-2006, and then ended up waiting eight months on my security clearance review. That’s not the Air Force’s fault at all. Well, maybe it’s the Air Force’s fault for sending me to a non-flying assignment! 🙂

         I know how you feel about the changing bases. The unit I was first assigned to doesn’t exist anymore, and my last unit is moving from Germany back to the States (to Ft Bliss, actually, and I don’t know if there’s any way to make it more drastic, either!).

         I haven’t pulled any alert duty since my first assignment, and I certainly don’t miss it!

  7. Anwyn says:

    I’m mighty curious what non-flying assignment could be so important that they’d pull a trained fighter pilot out of the cockpit.

    Dad informs me that I’ve mislabeled the “boom pod” as “boom pit.” Whoops.

  8. Chris Penningroth says:

    There are a couple types, actually. The assignment I had to pull was called an Air Liaison Officer billet. I was basically in charge of a Tactical Air Command and Control Party for two years. We lived and worked with the Army. If it had been a flying assignment, it would have been my best assignment ever! (Unfortunately. . . .)

    Pit, pod. . . I knew what you meant! 🙂

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