To people in the Tampa area, the old, gray four-engine KC-135 Stratotanker jets have been a familiar sight since the mid-1990s, when MacDill Air Force Base shifted from fighter training to aerial refueling.
But the planes are new to the folks up at the Niagara Falls Air Force Reserve Station, where they used to fly C-130 Hercules propeller-driven cargo planes but are slowly turning to a refueling mission because of ever increasing demand.
"We switched over to the KC-135s about six months ago," says Air Force Lt. Col, Chris Pfeil.
Pfeil, 46, spoke to me from a flight line at MacDill that’s reserved for visiting units. He is leading a contingent of three KC-135s from his base that have come down to Tampa to train with a squadron of A-10C Thunderbolt II close-air support jets.
Switching over from the lumbering Herks to the faster but still aging jets has been a challenge, said Pfeil, who has flown them for the past 16 years.
"It has been difficult for us," he said. "Not so much the plane, but the time in the plane."
To learn how to fly a new type of plane, you eventually have to get out of the simulator and into the aircraft. But a bad combination of poor aircraft condition and miserable weather has added to the challenges.
"When you switch over, you are trying to get repetitions and trying to get airborne," he said. "But our planes are not in the best shape. We are trying to get those up to shape and trying to get instructors. And trying to get three airplanes off the ground when there is a foot of snow and ice has been difficult."
Having flown on several training missions and a combat flight over Iraq last summer, I know that Pfeil isn’t grousing. The jets, which first rolled off the assembly lines when Eisenhower was in the White House, are old, often cantankerous and require lots and lots of TLC.
Here in Tampa, crews from the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing have mastered this challenge after decades of experience. But it’s all new to Pfeil’s team.
If they didn’t know already, they found out while trying to get down here just what a challenge the old birds present.
"We were supposed to bring four jets down," he said. "But only three were able to make it."
Still, despite the challenges, Pfeil said he is enjoying learning to fly a new aircraft with a very different mission.
"In the 130s, we did everything from heavy equipment airdrops to airfield insertions to aeromedical evacuations and blacked out landings on very small dirt strips," he said. "It was a very, very diverse mission."
While the KC-135s also do evacuations, as they did during Hurricane Maria relief efforts in the Caribbean, they are designed with one mission in mind — to serve as flying gas stations.
That means pilots have to learn mid-air maneuvering so fighter jets like the A-10 can link up to their refueling boom in the back. And new boom operators have to learn how to lower the boom with pinpoint accuracy to meet the receiving aircraft.
The boom operators have the bigger learning curve, Pfeil said.
"For me, as a pilot, it is pretty benign," Pfeil said.
Unless, that is, he is refueling an aircraft like the B-52 bomber.
"When we get heavy aircraft, the bow wave can push the plane and kick the autopilot off," he said.
There are other differences with the Stratotanker that he’s getting used to, as well — including speeds that can reach twice those of the Hercules.
"It’s a fast jet. Being 41,000 feet at .8 Mach is way different than being at 23,000 feet and 300 miles per hour."
And he heaped praise on the 63rd Air Refueling Squadron, part of the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill.
"They are by far the best out there. They have gone out of their way to give us support and instruction. I cannot thank them enough."
Pfeil said his unit had flown the Herks for about three decades, but the Air Force recently shifted the mission to meet the demand for gas.
"Aerial refueling is in such a high demand, they just cannot keep up," he said. Adding to the need is a delay in deployment of new KC-46 Pegasus refueling jets, designed to replace the Stratotankers.
"The Air Force needs all the tanker support it can get," he said.
The Pentagon announced no new deaths last week in ongoing operations.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 49 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the followup, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan; 43 troop deaths and two civilian deaths in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; one death classified as other contingency operations in the global war on terrorism; and four deaths in ongoing operations in Africa where, if they have a title, officials will not divulge it.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman