Look to the skies north of Las Vegas, and you’re bound to see fighter jets in an aerobatic dance, and hear the rumble of what sounds like thunder as they fire up their afterburners.
This is Red Flag, an air combat exercise that happens three to four times a year, a showcase of the U.S. military fighter jet and bomber fleets.
More than 80 fighter jets, bombers, reconnaissance and command and control aircraft have been flying day and night missions nearly every day for the past three weeks here in the desert just north of Las Vegas.
It’s also an exercise in which McConnell Air Force Base crews and planes have been playing a key role.
The jets include new F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, B-1 Bomber, E-18 Growler and the aging A-10 Warthog.
Military aircraft from the United Kingdom and Australia — including the Eurofighter Typhoon — also are participating in the exercise, aimed at preparing and training Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots for air-to-air and air-to-ground battles.
“It’s just a good opportunity for learning what it’s going to be like in real combat,” said 1st Lt. Kelly Rapp, a new F-16 fighter jet pilot based at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.
But Rapp’s F-16 doesn’t have a big fuel tank, definitely not enough to keep her jet airborne for each long Red Flag training exercise.
That’s where Wichita’s hometown Air Force base comes in.
Crews from McConnell have been here since Jan. 26, keeping fighter pilots like Rapp in the air with plenty of gas.
“It makes a big difference for our ability to stay on station,” she said of McConnell’s tankers.
Crews and aircraft from McConnell are regular participants in Red Flag.
But this time around, McConnell has been designated as the leader of the air refueling effort at the exercise. That means Maj. Bradford Ragan, whose job at McConnell is assistant director of operations for the 349th Air Refueling Squadron, is the commander of the Red Flag Tanker Task Force Detachment.
He’s leading a group of nearly 100 people who include pilots, boom operators, and maintenance and intelligence personnel to ensure the task force and its four KC-135s — two from McConnell, one from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and a fourth U.S. Air Force tanker from Royal Air Force station Mildenhall in England – are doing their part to keep the fighters and bombers flying.
“You’ve got to be on top of it,” Ragan said of managing the people, including rest periods for flight and maintenance crews, as well as ensuring the tankers are ready to fly at all times.
As of Thursday – the second to the last day of Red Flag – the tanker task force had a mission success rate of 98 percent. The crews average three sorties a day, though some days they are flying at night. During a sortie, which can last as long as five hours, they will dispense about 64,000 pounds of fuel to dozens of fighters and bombers.
“Here, I would say we’re working them (airplanes and crews) a little bit more, flying more frequently,” Ragan said.
For tanker pilots new to Red Flag, there are challenges they don’t encounter in typical air refueling missions.
“We’re not the only ones in the area,” said Capt. Jordan Wittman, a KC-135 pilot from McConnell. “There’s other fighters, a lot of stuff coming in thousands of feet above and below us, so we really have to keep our eyes out.”
“And it’s very imperative that we don’t bust any of the borders … that we actually stay in our assigned airspace. It’s probably one of the challenges with this.”
The border that Wittman is talking about is the assigned airspace Red Flag participants have over the Nevada Test and Training Range, which encompasses 12,000 square miles northwest of Las Vegas. Fighter pilots say that may sound like a big area, but it’s not. Some of the fighter jets at Red Flag can cross that area in seven minutes.
He said the time between when the tanker takes off and reaches its assigned area also makes it challenging. In a more routine refueling mission it may be an hour or two before the tanker reaches the spot where it refuels other planes. At Red Flag, the airfield is minutes from the exercise area.
“So we don’t have a lot of time by the time we launch to the time we’re actually on station giving gas,” Wittman said.
The challenges are plenty for McConnell maintenance crews as well. They’re tasked with keeping operational planes that are more than 50 years old. McConnell will be the first active duty base to receive the new, Boeing KC-46 Pegasus air refueling tanker, the first one of which is expected to be delivered this year.
During this Red Flag, one of the four tankers had a problem with its avionics and had to be grounded until crews could get a new part. But the part was going to take days to get Nellis, so the McConnell team chartered an aircraft to quickly retrieve the part and get the tanker back up in the air, said 2nd Lt. Toby Cruz, the McConnell officer serving as the tanker task force’s officer in charge of maintenance.
“Timing is very critical,” he said.
Cruz attributed the mission success rate to his crews who are maintaining the airplanes.
“They’re the ones really doing all the hard work … making the right, smart decisions,” Cruz said.
Rapp, the F-16 pilot, said her home base doesn’t have the tanker support that she and her fellow fighter pilots have at Red Flag.
That lack of support has consequences.
During fighter training events at Shaw, F-16 pilots have to refuel the conventional way, by landing and refueling while the engine is running, she said. The extra landing and takeoff take away time that could otherwise be spent training in flight.
And during that refueling, a maintenance crew member could spot an issue with the jet that ends up keeping the plane on the ground. But not all problems found on an airplane affect its airworthiness, Rapp said.
“If you stay airborne some of those issues aren’t going to affect staying airborne,” she said.
Col. Richard Dickens, an F-15 Strike Eagle pilot from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, S.C., who’s overseeing this Red Flag exercise as its commander, said he can’t underscore the importance of the air refueling that McConnell and other tanker crews and planes provide.
“Without the tankers here, we would get a fraction of the training we get,” Dickens said.
If fighter jets had to land to refuel during Red Flag, “we’re not going to get airborne again for the day,” he said. That’s because the training missions at Red Flag involve many aircraft doing different things at specific times. Just one plane interrupting that training flow creates a domino effect for other jets in the air and those waiting to take off.
Air refueling “allows us to train longer and allows more assets to train together.”