Redbull hangár

Redbull hangár

2016. július 11., hétfő

Air refuelling from the second row

Text: Gabriella, photos: Nándor Emil Dudás

There are special places and special things at these places which worth to return. Pápa Air Base is one of them. Partly because we can meet old friends there and get new, kind acquaintances as well, partly because the exciting work at the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) and Boeing provides many good report topics. The air-to-air-refuelling (AAR) of the C-17s had been on our wish-list since we heard about it first time and finally in May we could experience behind the shoulder of the pilots how goose bumped feeling it is. Journalists cannot have a chance to do it too often, so we did our best to share this lifelong experience with you via our photos and words. According to our old habit, we won’t bore you with technical details and statistics what you can find on the net with some searching.

Before we started this project, we’ve known about this whole thing what our former interviewee, Lt Col Howland, the commander of the Heavy Airlift Squadron told us. In his opinion, it is the most dangerous flight task, because the two aircraft have to keep less than 7 meters distance, with 6 miles/minute speed, connected with a stiff tube, while fuel is flowing through with high pressure. It seemed a very exciting task which requires a strong focus on it. No wonder, that pilots need to practice it bimonthly to keep their licence in this regard. As we learnt it during our visit at Boeing’s maintenance team last time, no special technical preparation is necessary to this mission, except that they check the refuelling receptacle above the cockpit and its cover plate before take-off. (This cover plate is being manually drawn off by the pilots by a handle from inside the cockpit just before the tanking procedure.) During the preparation to the report, we were searching for on board photos on the net, but we’ve hardly seen any. We found its reason during the mission and we will tell you later. So we haven’t learned too much posteriorly, but I didn’t mind it, as it is always better to do it in situ. This is how we travelled to Pápa.

We were stamping about in the gate of the base excitedly at 7:45 in the morning and were happy with the brilliant sunshine. Although it wasn’t important for the flight mission, because we surmised, that it would be transacted above the clouds, but Emil could take some awesome photos of all the three C-17 in the start zone at least. It is a very rare occasion, because the C-17s are mostly on their way, the occupancy is quite high. It was proved as the No. 2 aircraft started in the same time with us, transporting Hungarian soldiers to Afghanistan.

Major David Mittman from the U.S. Air Force greeted us on board. He is a qualified instructor and Chief Pilot at the Heavy Airlift Squadron with approximately 4.500 flight hours, which he gained mostly on C-17, but flew on T-37B and T-1A as well during his training. The master, who rated his colleagues’ performance during this practice flight. We got the safety instructions from him and it had higher importance this time, as we were sitting in the second row of the cockpit. We placed our luggage safely avoiding to slither during the maneuvers, got info about the usage of the oxygen mask in emergency and were prepared to carry out the commands like the others for our common safety. Then we tested the room for Emil to move with the camera without bothering the pilots and we fastened our 5-point seatbelts. The pilots were doing the check lists and switching the on board instruments in front, started to roll and were checking the brakes, the lights, and some panels’ operation among others, then Captain Jones (USAF) and Captain Uzunov (Bulgarian Air Force) made the bird fly quickly.

Although we’ve already flown with the C-17 and we sat in front, we were surprised how short distance were required for the take-off and how short time we reached the travelling level and the 300 knots travelling speed. (Later we were told, that it was an even faster take-off than usual as they were practiced the emergency start.) We felt the power of the 4 engines in our stomach and its effect on our endorphin level.
Video about this experience:

When I glanced to Emil, I saw a wide smile on his face too, but as soon as we got to horizontal position, he continued taking shots. Fortunately we got headsets, so we could witness the whole radio communication, the pilots’ conversation between each other and with the towers. We heard as we checked in to the Hungarian Air Control, then Schwechat took us over, later Munich. The cockpit was surprisingly noisy, this was the other reason why I didn’t want to take off my headset. Allegedly the lack of sound-proofing is because the constructors wanted to save weight with it. It’s not a problem at all, as the crew wear the headset all the time during the flight and the passengers get earplugs.

Meanwhile we were flying above the snow-white clouds and suddenly the snow-covered peaks of the Alps appeared through them. Sometimes a commercial aircraft passed near us, surprisingly fast. I couldn’t feel our speed as I didn’t have a fixed point to correlate, so it seemed if we would have stood. Our pilots spent the time with checking the points of the thick checklist book. The others were eating their lunch in the background and shared the heated Polish meatballs with us. Another reason why it is better to travel by a military transport aircraft than a commercial one: there’s warm food for the tourists as well J

Major Mittman who was standing behind my back, pointed to something through the window and said: „There it is!”. I supposed, that he recognized the tanker aircraft, as we reached the ‘Gretchen Low’ aerial refuelling track near Ulm in Germany. But I couldn’t see anything - I’m not eagle-eyed like pilots. I warned Emil to watch outward as well. Within a few minutes, we also recognized the tanker, which navigated itself in front of us and we spotted the text ‘USAF’ on its wing.

We were informed later that it was a KC-135 from the 151st Air Refueling Wing, Utah Air National Guard, operating out of Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany. Emil has tracked down via its registration number, that this aircraft has been serving for 51 years! Reliable construction, isn’t it? Captain Uzunov gave up his seat to Major Mittman and began what we came for. We recognized the boom operator in our upper window, who was lying in the bottom of the tanker in a “bubble” and the KC-135 pushed its refuelling tube (the boom) towards us, which reminded me of a pole-ex. I’ve never feared during a flight before, because I always trust the knowledge of the pilots 100%, but seeing that tube steeped 2 meters far from our window, I realized, that it is really a dangerous attraction and a small wrong movement is enough to … made our aircraft a unicorn - as one of the pilots said later. (We laughed on it, but our smile wasn’t truly honest.) It hasn’t happened to any of the C-17s so far (knock it on the table!), but I stealthily squinted to the oxygen mask which was hanging beside me and reminded myself to the safety instructions. We were flying with autopilot-on so far and its nice but determined female voice (pilots call her Betty) began to shout: „Altitude! Altitude!” as we stood in behind under the back of the tanker. The major changed to manual control, switching the autopilot off. It didn’t seem a walk in the park to keep the appropriate speed, height and distance like this, even though the lights of the tanker help the pilots in it. During this process, Major Mittman was talking to our aircraft if he would direct his darling during … well … dancing ;-) - supporting his own concentration with it.

The boom operator also had a strong focus on his job as we saw it on his face. No magnetic aid helped the connection, I guess it could be similar to when you are trying to thread a needle. After the maneuvering was successful and the KC-135’s boom has found the C-17s refuelling receptacle, the latest closed onto the boom. We felt just a little jerk. This is that moment, when the communication port in the tube is activated and the boom operator can help the C-17’s pilots with verbal instructions to hold the appropriate position. These were „dry” refuelling this time, but if we had done wet (real) ones, we would have got 8.000 pounds fuel per minute. The whole amount is different on each occasion, depending on the type of the flight mission, the planned distance and the weight of the payload. We were at 4.100 metres in that moment, with airspeed of 265 knots (490 km/h), a little bit more than 7 meters far behind the tanker. Meanwhile we were shaking heavily in the jet-blast of the KC-135 and Emil was fighting strongly to take good shots. As he said later, there’s no anti-shaking function in the world which would balance it.

The first connection lasted approximately 5 minutes. Then we connected again which was longer in order to practice refuelling in a turning maneuver too – as the major explained. We connected four more times to give the chance to all the pilots on board to fulfil everybody’s practice requirements. They can train also in the Boeing simulator in Farnborough, which costs much less as they don’t use fuel to it. As Lt Col Howland told us before, one flight hour with the „big bird” costs thousands of dollars, while an hour in the sim means only 300 bucks. They don’t have a simulator at Pápa now but they are happy with this opportunity in the UK, because earlier they had to go to the USA for the sim training. However, it is important experience for the pilots to train aerial refuelling also in the air, not just in the simulator. To make aerial refuelling training flights as cost-efficient as possible, there are usually 4-6 pilots doing their training on the same flight.

We could ask the crew some questions between the connections. It wasn’t easy as I was totally amazed by the view. Emil had a special request: taking pics of the tanker’s side and Maj Mittman arranged it with the boom operator. On our way back, all of us were laid back, so we could talk about other things than aviation. It has turned out that Major Mittman and Captain Jones love to serve in Hungary. The major interested in the country that much, that he has visited all the big cities and he can pronounce their name too! I know, that it is not easy for a foreigner, because our language is inflected and pronunciation is difficult, so I do appreciate, when somebody, who is a citizen of a world-leading country with a worldwide spoken language starts to learn Hungarian – even though it is not essential to his life here.

We arrived to Pápa after 1 PM and we got out with Captain Jones. The rest of the crew took another turn to practice the base approaching procedures. We sat down with him at the squadron to chat a bit more, where they were packing in the offices heavily as they moved to the almost ready new hangar complex that week. You will find some photos about it at the end of the report.

After we make some room with putting away some boxes, Capt Jones shared with us, that he began to fly on C-17 after a one-year basic training and two-years type training. He has 1.600 flight hours altogether and the T-6 Tucan III and the T-1 Jayhawk types are also familiar to him from his flight training period. He started his aviation career as an on board technician on AWACS where he spent 8 years. Sometimes he could sit in the cockpit and this is how he found a new way in the field of aviation. He finds his service at Pápa a very good opportunity, because it is a very useful experience to work with soldiers of other 11 nations. Which is not totally smooth in the beginning and the different rotation of the different nations’ soldiers doesn’t make it easy either, but as he sees, every country sends their best men and every colleague is very motivated, everybody wants to learn which eases to get on well. He became an aircraft commander in the meantime and as the air refuelling qualification is compulsory in this position, this is why we could meet him today. He needs to practice it more as he is quite new in this job. During a mission, he takes it into account how experienced are the crew members to manage them properly. When he flies with two very experienced colleagues, he can let them work alone a bit and can go back to have a lunch, bur when it’s not given, he needs to keep an eye on the flight plan avoiding any mistake. He shares the opinion, that air refuelling is the toughest flight mission for a C-17 pilot, because two aircraft are flying very close to each other. He thinks that the success of an AAR depends on the boom operator mostly, because as he tries to hit the receptacle with moving the boom right to left, up and down. This is also a hard job for the pilots to hold the 490 km/h (265 knots) airspeed. The conditions are not always so ideal like today, sometimes they fly in clouds (this is what really shakes the C-17) and it happens, that the tanker is not flying too stable and it is hard to follow. The night AAR is the peak of it, when they can rely on their eyes as it is not allowed to use NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), because it could mislead their sight. He was talking about the 2 and a half month simulator training where they could practice the instrumental approaching and flying in bad weather. They reached the AAR in the middle of their program. When I asked him about his memories about his first, non-sim air refuelling, he shook his head and said: „It was awful!”, struggling to hold the right position and was excited.

Favourite flight task for him is to take home soldiers from a mission, because he finds it very touching to see those people to embrace their family members after many months of service abroad. He really knows this feeling as he can see their friend and family in the U.S. very rarely. He takes his job more consciously at these occasions, for example the oxygen level in the cargo part, where the 150 people is sitting and possible emergency situations means much responsibility. Usually, the captain prefers to fly with autopilot on. Of course, everyone has to practice also with autopilot off as the on board computer can go wrong or as the pilots say: „Betty (the autopilot) can mislead you.” They need to train themselves for detachment in emergency situations as well, when they have to get in a safe distance as fast as it is possible, after hearing the command: „Brake away! Brake away!” We saw it on that day: the last connection ended like this, when they pulled back the aircraft.

After having interviewed Capt Jones, we were able to talk with Lt Col Geelen, who is the Director of Operations of the Heavy Airlift Squadron. Coming from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, he is a C-17 aircraft commander himself. He provided us with some further background information about the HAW plans and carries out aerial refuelling training.

According to Lt Col Geelen and HAW Public Affairs Officer Tuomas Saavalainen, HAW airlift missions require aerial refuelling only very seldom. Because Hungary is at the heart of central Europe, the HAW C-17s can reach most of their destinations without refuelling, even places like Afghanistan or Mali.  Lt Col Geelen points out that the C-17s are equipped with extra fuel tanks. “When the aircraft was originally built it was able to carry less fuel. However, with the extra fuel tanks, we need aerial refuelling only very seldom when executing the missions”, Lt Col Geelen says.

Nevertheless, the HAW keep up the readiness to do aerial refuelling, because the SAC member nations can request it. One of the capabilities of the C-17 is aerial refuelling, it is designed for it. The whole programme was built around utilizing all the capabilities of the C-17. Saavalainen emphasizes that the HAW exists to fulfil the member nations’ requirements. “We have to be able to do also aerial refuelling, the 12 member nations expect it from us. The 12 nations are our customers, we’re here because of them and we have to provide them with all the capabilities of the C-17”, he points out.

We asked LT Col Geelen, how often do they do wet AAR for training purpose.

“We rarely make wet hook-ups, because the aircraft become heavier and heavier during it and the hardest part of air refuelling is the engine management when you just not take the throttles and pushing forward, you just think, that you are pushing them forward. The aircraft is so heavy, that it needs to go forward first, because if you are pushing forward the throttles, you cannot stop it anymore, because it is so big. So you push it with a little power and wait while the aircraft starts to move. You almost take out already and these are really-really small movements. And the plane slowly goes forward and you put the throttles little bit afterward, because the aircraft would stop again. But at dry hook-ups, when you are in position, you more or less leave the throttles where they are, so when nobody is touching anything, you can stay like this. If you take fuel, your aircraft is getting heavier and when you are heavy, you fall behind, so you have to push up slowly all the time a little bit. So taking fuel is different. But if you don’t think about it, just do what the tanker is doing in front of you, you automatically just push it.”

After the interview, went to see the brand new hangar complex after the interview. We are really look forward to see its interior as well.

The hangar-part of the complex from the runway

Some additional outdoor work had been remained when were there

The office department of the complex - moving into it was under progress during our visit

It was another super day at Pápa Air Base. We became smarter and got a new, unforgettable experience in the field of military aviation.

You can find more photos on Emil’s blog:


We thank all our interviewees and HAW Public Affairs Officer Tuomas Saavalainen for the VIP-level organization and hospitality on the ground and on board.