Aerial refueling extends Marine aviation missions

22 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Paul Leicht

Imagine driving a car down the freeway at a high speed and refilling the gas tank by connecting to a moving tanker truck with a flapping hose.

That is the motor vehicle equivalent of aerial refueling.

Providing this vital resource for Marine Corps aviation, the Marines of Marine Aerial Refueling Transport Squadron 452, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are flying daily aerial refueling missions here in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Aerial refueling is a great force multiplier and allows our helicopters and fighter jets to stay in the air longer to complete their mission,” said Lt. Col. Bradley S. James, commanding officer, VMGR-452. “We can do this day or night.”

Flying the KC-130T Hercules, the Newburgh, N.Y.-based reserve squadron has supplied more than 600,000 pounds of aviation fuel in their first month in Iraq.

“By the end of this month we expect to reach or exceed 900,000 (pounds of fuel delivered),” said the Alpharetta, Ga., native. “Our aircraft is equipped with two ring-mounted hose-and-drogue aerial refueling pods that can transfer around 300 gallons per minute to two aircraft simultaneously.

At that rate, we can fill a Harrier or a Hornet in around 10 minutes. To increase our capacity we also use a removable stainless steel fuel tank that fits inside the fuselage in the cargo area if necessary,” he added.

The drogue resembles a basket attached to a flexible hose extending from the tanker. Its valve is the point where an aircraft’s refueling probe attached to a receiver connects to allow the flow of fuel from one aircraft to another.

With the tanker flying straight and level, the drogues trail behind and just below the tanker.

“When the aircraft approaches we look out from a seat in the cargo area to make sure they have connected,” said Cpl. Jason V. Christofferson, loadmaster, VMGR-452, and a native of Great Falls, Mont. “Sometimes as they approach the basket it tends to rise so they have to aim a little high. If they plug, loose fuel could spray creating a potentially dangerous situation.”

The pilot of the aircraft receiving fuel must fly his probe directly into the basket, at which point wind drag on the basket forces the probe into the valve allowing fuel to flow, said James.

“It’s important for the aircraft receiving the fuel to keep an eye on the hose and maintain his position during the refueling,” explained James. “When he is done refueling, the pilot simply decelerates hard enough to pull the probe out of the valve and continues on with his mission.”

Since the early 1920s and the U.S. military’s first experiments with the concept, in-flight refueling operations have extended aircraft endurance and capabilities.

“Aerial refueling has several tactical advantages,” said James. “It allows us and other aircraft to fly farther and (remain) airborne longer. Also, aircraft such as fighters can take off with only a partial fuel load so they can carry additional payload instead.

“Out here in Iraq during combat operations, that can make a big difference for mission success,” he finished.