Aviation

On this day, the KC-135 tanker refueling flight happened to be ‘unmanned’

Crew of ‘unmanned’ flight hope to inspire girls who may want to fly

On April 9, a McConnell-based tanker crew made up entirely of women flew a refueling mission. Though not unprecedented, it is rare in the Air Force to have all-female crews on a KC-135.
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On April 9, a McConnell-based tanker crew made up entirely of women flew a refueling mission. Though not unprecedented, it is rare in the Air Force to have all-female crews on a KC-135.

On April 9, a KC-135 crew based at McConnell Air Force Base refueled five F-16 fighters flown by student pilots out of Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.

A routine mission, save for one thing: All the crew members on the flight were women. In addition to spreading tanker gas to fighter jets, they were hoping to spread inspiration to women everywhere.

“We’re trying to make sure that all the women that are coming up behind us have the same opportunities and the realization that they can achieve these goals just like we did,” said Major Monica Riggs, one of the pilots on board. All the crew members are part of the 18th Air Refueling Squadron.

“I would venture to say that in all of our careers, we saw some female up there that was a powerhouse that was doing what she needed to do to pave the way for the next person,” Riggs said.

An all-female crew on a KC-135 is not unprecedented, but it is rare. Generally, crew members on most day-to-day operational flights are selected based on availability and experience. An inexperienced boom operator, for example, might be paired with a more experienced pilot.

The odds are slightly better at McConnell, according to Riggs, because about 10 female air crew members are stationed there, which is statistically high.

The five crew members from the 18th Air Refueling Squadron that day were the boom operator, Tech. Sgt. Sarajo Danis, and pilots Riggs, Maj. Suzanne Crespo, Capt. Sarah Cassman and Lt. Col. Suzie Jones, who organized the crew for the mission.

Also along for the ride were members of the base’s public affairs office, who wanted to get images and video of the mission.

A Facebook post made by the 931st Air Refueling Wing two days after the mission was liked nearly 1,000 times, shared almost 600 times and garnered 150 comments, most of them supportive.

“When it posted, there were the handful of comments that you’re not ready for, like ‘Well, if they wanna do what everyone else does, why don’t they just shut up and get to work,’” Jones said.

“We don’t think it’s a big deal, but when we go out in public in our flight suits sometimes, or at an airshow, it’s moving when the little girls there are like ‘cool!’ Or their parents are like ‘Wow, check it out. See what you can do?’ That’s what inspires me. That’s what motivates us: If in the end, one family sees that, and they impart that kind of vision for their kids’ lives,” Jones said.

All aboard that particular mission agreed on one thing: Even though the all-female crew was unique, it was business as usual when they were up there.

“Nobody is impressed with us,” Jones said.

She added, “I feel like I have every advantage available to me that a man does. I’ve felt that opportunities in the Air Force have been extremely fair.”

Riggs agreed with Jones’ assessment.

“I think it’s because we’re all focused on the commonality of missions, safety and mission success,” Riggs said.

“If I get to do it with the ladies sitting next to me, that’s awesome. But some of my other best friends are the guys down the hallway sitting in squadron.”

Riggs may be just another tanker pilot at McConnell, but she also just last month finished her year-long reign as Mrs. Kansas 2018. Sometimes she wore her flight suit and her pageant sash to events she attended as part of being Mrs. Kansas.

“When the air show was here last summer, I was Mrs. Kansas that day, not in a flight suit,” Riggs said.

She said little girls would approach her to see the crown, but someone nearby would say ‘But you know what she does? She flies the airplanes.’

“To watch that little lightbulb moment happen was really cool,” Riggs said.

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