Team 61 cleared for takeoff

Written by Ryan Kelly | Photos by Ryan Kelly and James Woodard

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What do you think about when you think of the US Air Force? You think of the jets, the level of service, and the people that strap on their boots and throw their uniforms on every day. But what you may not think about are the men and women who wear a suit and tie, the men and women that are in the car next to you on your commute, who may very well commit to a level of service before self. They are members of the US Air Force Reserve.

Established in 1948 by President Harry Truman, the Air Force Reserve and 2018 marks their 70th anniversary. The first action seen by the Air Force Reserve was in the Korean war when almost 147,000 Reservists were mobilized. The Air Force Reserve has been active in every major conflict since it was inaugurated and continues to support efforts to date.

The 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst flies the aircraft assigned to the active-duty 305th AMW, also located at McGuire. Both Wings share the responsibility of flying and maintaining the C-17 Globemaster III (transport/cargo) and KC-10 Extender (refueling/transport). There are over 2,200 people assigned to the 514th AMW, and in 2003 the wing mobilized more than 1500 reservist to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom, continuing to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and more than 15 other locations. In 2009 as the only Air Force Reserve wing flying the KC-10 Extender, in support of the Northeast Tanker Task Force, the 76th and 78th Air Refueling squadrons (units within the 514th AMW) flew 42 percent more missions than the other Air Guard tanker wings combined. The KC-10 can also serve as a Aeromedical aircraft, and in 2014 the wing flew an aeromedical evacuation mission on a KC-10 with a gravely-ill infant from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. WIth little notice, crew members configured the airplane, worked with medical personnel and controlled air traffic and command agencies to effect the safe and expeditious movement of the child for emergent and follow-on definitive care. The 514th is also the first Reserve Wing to travel to Dakar and Liberia to deliver 44 tons of equipment and cargo as well as four active-duty personnel in support of the fight against the Ebola virus.

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Full Disc Aviation reached out to the 514th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JBMDL) inquiring if we were able to share their story. Colonel David Pavey is the Commander of the Wing, and Vice Commander is Colonel Adrian Byers. Our initial outreach was greeted warmly by the Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Colonel Kimberly Lalley. After a few months of collaboration and hard work on Lt. Col Lalley's side, the mission had been approved by Air Mobility Command Headquarters and we would be granted the opportunity to not only share the story on the Air Force Reserve, but we were also granted access to an aerial refueling mission.

Chomping at the bit, we happily accepted and asked what was needed. So, aside from being asked to cover the story, what was significant about attending this mission? Not only did we have the opportunity to fly alongside F-35 Lightning IIs from the 419th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base and F-15 Eagles from the 104th Fighter Wing (Air National Guard at Westfield-Barnes Airport in Massachusetts), but all crew in both tankers and fighters were Reservists.

We arrived at the base early on April 7th with a select few other media outlets including NBC out of New York, The Aviationist, and We were escorted to the passenger terminal to check-in and awaited our trip out to the flight line to board our flight. While we were waiting, Lt. Col Lalley gave terrific insights into the Air Force Reserve and shared a few personal indulgences, like her newly discovered favorite travel destination in the world, Paris. Also to our surprise, the two F-35 pilots came to the terminal for interviews before our flight. Their callsigns were Quatro and Worm. Coming from the F-16 Fighting Falcon platform, both pilots enjoy the reliability and superior technology that comes with the F-35.

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After our interview, we went out to the flight line where our KC-10 awaited us. The KC-10 was included in the Air Force inventory starting in 1981 and has been a key player in supporting our allied assets in every major conflict since then. Full Disc Aviation was granted the opportunity to ride shotgun on the flight deck for departure. As we taxied out to the runway, reality began to set in. A natural smile spread across my face and every ounce of aviation love in me began pouring out. Finalizing checklists for the aircraft and hearing air traffic control call-outs, we awaited our two-ship of F-35s to take the runway. Thud 1 and Thud 2 were cleared for takeoff, engaged their burners and blasted off in seconds. As we lined up, I heard the words “Team 61 cleared,” and we felt over 150,000 pounds of thrust from three General Electric engines push us down the runway. As we lept off the ground and the gear came up, both F-35s were off our wing in a matter of seconds, and we climbed through the ceiling of clouds in close formation.

As we reached altitude, we were given the green light to head back and start shooting! After slowly stepping down the steep ladder to the boom operators area, we noticed the limited seating arrangements around the boom operator and a large window pointed aft from which light streamed in. I squinted out into the light and saw our tasking: both F-35s waiting for gas. The transitions were smooth but quick; one after the other, each F-35 pilot swiftly but precisely slid his aircraft under the refueling boom as it carefully dropped into the refueling receptacle. Thousands of pounds of Jet A fuel flowed above us through the boom and into the fighters. This process was smoothly accomplished because of the extremely high level of skill with all crew members involved, with both the KC-10 and each F-35 in turn flying as one, stuck to the boom like superglue; some of the best flying we have ever seen. Coordinating closely with the boomer, both F-35s performed multiple 'breaks;' both aircraft aggressively banking away from each other. Pulling off this maneuver made for some incredible photo opportunities; my shutter button was mashed down nearly the entire time. The F-35s joined off the wings of the KC-10 and made pretty for the cameras, something I’ve dreamt about as an aviation photographer. Moving along at 250-300 knots with our charges four miles up above the northeast, we circled with the F-35s and a fellow 514th aircraft off our wing waiting for the F-15s from the 104th Fighter Wing.

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After some time, we got word that only one of the F-15s was able to partake in the mission. Soon after, the single F-15 was behind our tanker. We headed to the back of the dependable KC-10 and down into the boom operator's area to be greeted once more by our fifth-generation fighters, now flying beside a fourth-generation fighter in the F-15 Eagle. It appeared as if all aircraft were flying on autopilot as they maintained a perfect formation behind the tanker, the aircrew’s precision nearly robotic. Before we knew it, the F-15 broke down and away from us. We got the notification we were heading back to McGuire and we climbed back up the ladder to head back to our seats.

We did a mid-field break over McGuire and turned downwind, left base, and eventually final approach. We heard multiple power changes and felt the minimal changes in attitude moments before the tires of the ageless KC-10 kissed runway 06 of McGuire. We slowed as the sounds fell in pitch, settling back on terra firma. As I felt the aircraft move into the parking space, the realization that a dream had come true washed over me like a wave. We were able to fly with some of the best within the Air Force Reserve. As we disembarked the aircraft, we had the opportunity to interview the crew and discovered that some had over 5,000 hours in the aircraft, 500+ combat hours, and many of them had refueled just about every aircraft in the allied fleet. The truly most impressive aspect of this was the incredible CRM (crew resource management) between these Reservists. One would think they do this every day for the skills they displayed and their infectious dedication; they absolutely love what they do. Every single reservist we were able to talk to loved having us on board and was more than willing to answer any questions that came up.

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Before we knew it, it was time to gather our things and hop on the bus back to our vehicles and head home. Full Disc Aviation would like to thank Air Mobility Command, the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Joint-Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst, the entire crew, and most importantly, Lt. Col Lalley for being the point person for making all of this happen. With the retirement of the KC-10 lurking in the future, we were honored to have taken part in this mission to capture the moments and tell the story of these incredible men and women serving our country.