ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Air National Guard's nine KC-135 refueling tankers are playing an increasingly larger role as the U.S. military forces mobilize for combat in central Asia.
The Eielson Air Force Base tankers have been in such demand that 130 of the guardsmen who fly and service them have been ordered to active duty by President Bush.
The Fairbanks-based 168th Air Refueling Wing carries out its strategic mission in daily airborne ballets more than 20,000 feet above the ground. The mission can be dangerous because planes must get very close to the tankers during refueling at jet speeds.
''When you're in contact, connected to another airplane, the slightest mistake in either crew's part could result in disaster,'' said Maj. Bryan White, a part-time guard pilot from Fairbanks.
Since the Vietnam War, tankers have been used to extend the effective range and combat time of bombers and fighters. More recently, as overseas bases have closed, aerial refueling has become ever more important in the effort to project American forces worldwide.
''Nothing moves in the Air Force without a tanker,'' said Lt. Col. Walt Lunsford, the wing's operation group commander, a full-time guardsman before the activation.
To demonstrate its mission, the Alaska Air National Guard invited media from Anchorage and Fairbanks for a four-hour training flight aboard one of the tankers last week.
A normal KC-135 crew consists of two pilots and the operator of the refueling boom. The need for a navigator has been largely eliminated by advanced electronics, especially the computers that combine radar images, global position readings from the tanker and the planes it will refuel, chart information, flight plans and weather into a single screen at the positions manned by the flight commander, Maj. Kevin Kenaston, and co-pilot, Capt. Byron Rager.
The plane was the lead in a three-plane cell formation, a pattern often used for refueling larger aircraft. Each tanker was separated by about a mile horizontally and 500 feet vertically.
About an hour into the flight, Kenaston's jet reached a position near the Sparrevohn Air Force Station radar, about 185 miles west of Anchorage and he parked in an orbit to await the arrival of the mission's first fuel receiver, an E-3 Sentry AWACS from Elmendorf Air Force Base.
The AWACS, with its huge rotating radar dome, is also an adapted Boeing 707, and it showed up around noon. First it connected to the trailing tanker, then the middle one, and at 12:48 p.m., airman Jeremy Vancil, the young boom operator, signaled to Kenaston that his boom was engaged and the AWACS was taking on fuel.
The Air Force fleet of 546 KC-135 Stratotankers are run mostly by the National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The planes use the frame of the Boeing 707, though they have been extensively refitted since the first KC-135 was delivered in 1957.
Though old, the KC-135s are resilient. Col. Tim Scott, the wing commander on this mission, said he saw extreme turbulence rip two engines off the wing of a KC-135 during a Persian Gulf War campaign, yet the aircraft returned safely to base.
The fleet is projected to be the mainstay of aerial refueling for another 40 years, White said.
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