McConnell aids in historic overnight F-35 fighter jet mission

Under cover of night, the United States Air Force moved about eight F-35A Lightning II fighter jets into Europe for the first time in history Saturday.

Behind them – or more appropriately, above them – were two tankers from McConnell Air Force Base, providing necessary fuel.

The jets, which came from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, required three rounds of in-air refueling to make the journey, and McConnell provided the first of those three rounds. The jets were traveling overseas for the F-35’s first-ever training deployment in Europe.

“We’re really heavy out there,” KC-135 pilot Capt. Ben Hessney advised over the communications system shortly after takeoff.

The two KC-135s were loaded with about 180,000 pounds of fuel, and Hessney’s KC-135 offloaded about 79,000 pounds to the jets.

The KC-135, a refueling tanker that was created during the Eisenhower era and is still being used for missions like this, can offload up to 200,000 pounds of fuel, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Soon the planes will be supplemented by new KC-46 refueling tankers, which have been plagued by multiple production delays since the Air Force announced that McConnell would be the first active duty-led base in the country to fly them.

The next-generation F-35 fighter jet, which has also had difficulties in its production time line, arrived at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, on Saturday.

The American F-35s will provide training opportunities for NATO allies in Europe, as part of an initiative being dubbed the European Reassurance Initiative.

In addition to displaying support for Europe, the initiative, which has been ongoing since 2014, is intended to deter Russian aggression in the area, according to a news release from the U.S. Air Force last year.

“As we and our joint F-35 partners bring this aircraft into our inventories, it’s important that we train together to integrate into a seamless team capable of defending the sovereignty of allied nations,” said Gen. Tod D. Wolters in a news release. Wolters is commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa.

The F-35 mission has been discussed at least since December, when former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James hinted at it in a speech in the Atlantic Council.

“Now that the F-35 has been declared combat capable, we will deploy our newest fighter to Europe in the not too distant future,” she said then, according to Defense News. “Matter of fact, if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the F-35 didn’t make an appearance, perhaps, next summer. The unique combination of stealth, situational and sensor fusion will play an important role in reassuring allies and providing deterrence.”

The mission was reported by various national defense news outlets on Friday, landing a front-page spot on Defense News.

As the McConnell crew was preparing to board the KC-135 late Friday evening, an airman pulled up the story on his phone.

“Is this us?” he asked Hessney.

“We’d better not mess it up then,” he continued.

The refueling operations were smooth on McConnell’s end – boom operator Airman 1st Class Joseph Galeaz said the F-35 pilots were “clutch.”

“I didn’t have a problem with any of those connections,” Galeaz said afterward. “They were money.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt