EART19 (European Air Refuelling Training 2019)
Host: EATC (European Air Transport Command).
Host Nation: The Netherlands.
Host base: Eindhoven Air Base, Netherlands.
Dates: 31/03/19 – 12/04/19

Prose & Photography: jc96photography

EART is an annually held multinational air refueling training exercise lead by the European Air Transport Command at their headquarters, Eindhoven Air Base in the Netherlands. Eindhoven airbase is the home base of both Air Refuelling Squadron, 334 Squadron and Tactical Transport Squadron, 336 Squadron of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The participating airframes attending EART were the Royal Netherlands Air Force KDC-10, Luftwaffe A310, Royal Air Force, A330MRTT ‘Voyager’, United States Air Force KC-135 and the French Air Force KC-135.

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EART is to provide frequent training of planning and executing realistic scenarios for both air and maintenance crews of the tanker squadrons. The exercise was held in conjunction with multinational fighter training exercise Frisian Flag at the Falcon nest, Leeuwarden Air Base. Frisian Flag provided two daily waves of fighters up in the north.Their mid-mission top-ups demanded thousands of pounds of fuel and the tankers participating within EART19 were tasked to deliver that fuel.

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to join 334 Squadron on-board their unique KDC-10 tanker during EART on a media flight. The day could only be explained as surreal. During the first week of EART, I was working with 336 Squadron and their C-130s during exercise Orange Bull, so on the day of the media flight, 4th of April, I had a morning sortie on board the 336 Squadron C-130 dropping paratroopers over Belgium. We executed some low level flying and returned back to Eindhoven, where I offloaded from the C-130 and was taken to the pax terminal of the base, through security, and into the waiting room full of other photographers and journalists. I was full of excitement and all I could think about was which receivers we would have during the flight; whether it was going to be the USAF F-16s from Duluth and their stunning Have Glass scheme, Dutch, or Polish F-16s, it is with no argument to say that I would have been more than happy with any of the participants of Frisian Flag on the wing of the KDC-10.

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The time had come to board the tanker and everyone was extremely eager to get their spot towards the back of the aircraft and to gain a satisfactory looking window with the least amount of markings. Once finally on board, I was more than happy with the seat I gathered, there was big scratch down the middle but once giving it a few tests with both my lenses, the scratch was ineffective on the outcome of image. It had always been a huge bucket list item to fly on board an air to air refuelling sortie, so you could compare my excitement back to being a young child on Christmas Eve whilst waiting for the tri-engine machine to power up.  Once the KDC-10 powered up and taxi was in progress, it then hit me what was ahead! From that point, I could have staked a high amount that my head wasn't moving from looking out the window for the rest of the flight!

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Post takeoff and en route to our holding point for the refuelling, the flight was bumpy and a cloud-filled sky wasn’t giving the best backgrounds for the photography. It was spread out like a white canvas, but there was still hope as we had some waiting time over the North Sea for the fighters, and still a slight raise in altitude to 27,000ft.  

After a few orbits over the North Sea constantly scanning the surrounding airspace, my eyes caught four tiny specs in the distance and approaching fast towards to the tanker. As they became more visible it was clear that they were F-16 aircraft with conformal fuel tanks, confirming our suspicions of the only F-16s with conformal tanks; the Polish Air Force. I was stunned to get these receivers as I am very in favour of the conformal tanks from an aesthetic perspective.

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One of the four in formation went straight to the boom of the KDC-10, which is camera operated by a boomer situated in the front of the tanker; much different than the USAF tankers with the boom operator at the back and using a window to operate.  The other three aircraft stayed on the left wing, which fortunately was the side I was located at. Making a race track route on the flight path and turning anti-clockwise, this gave the great opportunity to get the F-16s in a turn and below us. Also coming to the benefit of myself and other photographers on-board, the clouds below us broke to a certain extent and the sun made a brief but very appreciated visit.  

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Prior to their refueling, the aircraft would fly in formation with the 334 Squadron tanker on the left wing, transitioning to the boom then over to the right wing of the tanker whilst waiting for the rest of the formation to fill up. Towards the end of the sortie, I stopped looking out of my window for the first time in an estimated  two hours and headed to the other side of the cabin to see the three of the four F-16s waiting for their last wingman of the formation to join them. Once all four had fueled up and gathered back in a four-ship formation, they broke out of formation with the tanker and headed back east towards the coast of the Netherlands.

The four stunning Polish F-16s were our only receivers of the flight, despite receiving a message from the flight deck notifying us that there could be a chance of being joined by more receivers, sadly, this was not the case, and we routed back to Eindhoven.

Once on the ground and disembarked from the KDC-10, we were shortly followed in by the RAF Voyager who shared the military apron with the RNLAF KDC-10 during EART.

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During the same evening of the media flight, after importing the files to both my hard drive and Lightroom, I couldn’t believe the shots I was processing were mine. To this current day, I still feel the same way. It truly was an exceptional experience and one I will never forget.