A big gray airplane named Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek mythology, reinvigorated the 72-year-old Air National Guard when it landed at Pease Air National Guard Base here at 3:47 p.m. Aug. 8, a glorious New England Thursday.
The “Spirit of Newington,” as it is called, was the first of 12 factory-fresh KC-46A tankers that will become the iron for the New Hampshire Air Guard’s 157th Air Refueling Wing. The wing’s second tanker touched down by the weekend.
It mattered not that these planes were originally supposed to arrive in December 2017. They had finally made it. Several hundred people witnessed the first arrival. Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, the director of the Air National Guard, and his son, Capt. Lee Rice, a 157th pilot, were at the controls. Acting Air Force Secretary Matthew Donovan was also there.
The new tankers landed about a month before the first two of 20 brand new Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters are set to arrive at the Vermont Air Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing in South Burlington.
Donovan, a New Hampshire native son, underscored the significance of the Guard getting these airframes at the same time they are going to active-component units. “It’s absolutely critical to the Air Force’s operations because we are so integrated with our reserve components, the Air Guard and Reserve,” he said Aug 8.
That these wings — situated hard by the Atlantic Ocean and only 200 miles away beside Lake Champlain in Vermont — are getting the newest airplanes in the Air Force inventory still shocks many Guard veterans. These are not hand-me-downs. In fact, the tankers now at Pease were the 14th and 15th to roll off Boeing’s production line near Seattle.
“The F-35A and the KC-46A represent an exciting leap forward in the Air Force’s future fighter precision attack and aerial-refueling capabilities,” said Lt. Gen. Rice. “The fact that these next-generation aircraft are headed to Air Guard units in Vermont and New Hampshire so early in their roll-out is evidence of the historic level of concurrent and balanced integration we have with the active-duty Air Force.
“Choosing to base these aircraft in the Northeast, a region with relatively few active-duty military bases, demonstrates the strategic value that the Air Force places in the Air National Guard,” added Rice, a former Massachusetts adjutant general.
Leaders at both wings insist the new weapons systems are bringing significant change to their bases. Some of it has already occurred: Both installations have new facilities to house and maintain the new aircraft.
But much of it has yet to unfold. The 157th, for example, is going from an eight-plane wing of KC-135s to the dozen KC-46As, and will add 19 full-time and 69 traditional personnel to its 1,300-member force, says Col. John Pogorek, the wing commander. In addition, the mission of both units will evolve.
The initial headlines, however, are all about the new iron, in part because it replaces aircraft that are so old. The 157th had flown KC-135s, which were built in the late 1950s, since 1975. The last one departed March 24. It was the oldest active airplane in the Air Force inventory. The 158th had flown F-16s at the Burlington International Airport since 1986 before the final four “Vipered out” April 6.
“Holy cow! We're Ops 2 in the Air Force as a Guard unit."
—Col. David Smith, commander of the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Fighter Wing
SOME KEY DIFFERENCES should be obvious to those who watch the new aircraft take off and land. The KC-46A is about a third bigger than the KC-135 and has two engines compared to the old tankers’ four. The F-35A has one engine like the F-16s, but the two outwardly angled vertical stabilizers on their tails look significantly different from the F-16’s single, 90-degree tail.
These new technological marvels are elevating and energizing the wings in multiple ways.
Burlington Air National Guard Base has been designated Ops 2 in the emerging F-35A world. It is the second base Air Force-wide designated to become operational with the fighters. Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah, with three F-35 squadrons, is Ops 1, and Eielson AFB in Alaska, with two squadrons, was designated Ops 3, says Col. David Smith, the 158th’s commander.
“Holy cow! We’re Ops 2 in the Air Force as a Guard unit. We will be part of those six squadrons that [for a while] make up the full operational capability of the Air Force specific to the F-35,” adds Smith with equal parts pride and wonder. “That’s really significant.
The F-35’s stealth technology and greater range enable it to operate in contested air space, which, pilots say is becoming increasingly dangerous for fourth-generation aircraft that are easily detected by conventional radar.
“Ground defenses have definitely continued to evolve rapidly, and … some of those threat systems would make fourth-gen platforms not survivable,” says Lt. Col. Tony Marek, the commander of the Vermont wing’s 134th Fighter Squadron. “The F-35 gives us that capability to operate within some envelope inside of those advanced threats.”
The F-35A is one of three variants of the aircraft also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. The A-model is the Air Force model. It’s designed for conventional takeoffs and landings. The Marines use the F-35B, which can perform short-takeoff/vertical landings. The Navy variant is the F-35C. It can land and take off from aircraft carriers.
Eight other countries currently have the F-35, but only the Marines and Israel have used it in combat.
The new tankers are equally significant for Pease, Pogorek says. Considering the Air Force began receiving the first of its anticipated 179 KC-46s only last January, getting the 14th and 15th tankers directly from Boeing in August is about as new as you can get.
These are the first Air Guard tankers equipped with both boom and centerline drogue refueling systems, which are capable of refueling nearly every U.S. military, NATO and coalition aircraft. Air refueling pods deployed from the tips of both wings will also refuel two receivers from basket-like drogues at the same time. It’s a huge advantage over the single-boom KC-135s that must have a drogue attached to the boom before takeoff to refuel some planes.
KC-46s also can themselves be air refueled. They also have armored cockpits and sophisticated sensory and defensive systems, which KC-135s do not have. This amounts to “a new mission for us. That’s what makes it monumental,” Pogorek says.
The new tanker, which is about 30 feet longer than the KC-135, does not carry that much more fuel, perhaps an additional 15,000 pounds, in their 212,000-pound payload. But their capacity to accomplish additional missions easily exceeds the older planes. The KC-46 fuselage can accommodate as many as 114 passengers or 18 cargo containers carrying up to 32.5 tons or 54 patients for aeromedical evacuations.
THE TANKERS ARE SO NEW that they are still undergoing initial testing and evaluation. “There have been some issues, and there’s been some delays. And we’re still in the testing phase for these airplanes,” acknowledged Donovan. “But we’re putting these airplanes in the hands of our airmen. And they’re going to wring them out. It’s going to take two or three years probably to get these things worked out.”
Among the issues is the refueling boom that Air Force officials say is too stiff and could end up scratching stealth coatings. In addition, the remote vision system’s cameras sometimes have issues with glare when the sun shines at certain angles. Boeing is working on fixing both problems.
Just how the KC-46 will be flown differently from the KC-135s during tactical operations remains to be seen. “A lot of that hasn’t even been written yet,” Pogorek says, which means his wing gets to be among the authors.
Because of its location, Pease promises to be as busy as it has traditionally been. “We’re in a great place to operationally be very effective. Most of the stuff — fighters, bombers and transports — that funnels into Africa, Europe and the Middle East comes right up the East Coast over Nova Scotia and then onward,” he says. And a lot of that stuff needs fuel.
The active Air Force’s 64th Air Refueling Squadron has been part of the New Hampshire wing’s operations since 2009, and that affiliation will live on into the KC-46 era, says Lt. Col. Kevin Eley, that squadron’s commander.
“We’ve done some great things with them,” Pogorek says. “Probably the pinnacle was, when we ended last year, we had flown more sorties and more hours per tail [aircraft] than anybody in the Guard, the Reserve or the active duty. That was the third year we did that. We do the mission very well.”
Converting Guard wings to the new planes is not happening overnight. Air Guard F-16 wings in Alabama and Wisconsin have been designated Ops 5 and 6 for the F-35s during the next few years, but very little is being said about which wings will follow. And which Guard air refueling wing will next convert to the new tankers has not been announced.
Meanwhile, the New England wings’ personnel have been putting their backs into the multiyear demands of preparing their units be fully mission capable by the end of their three-year conversion periods.
The Air Force designated the two bases for the new planes more than five years ago. A construction boom ensued not long after. The projects at Pease will cost between $100 million and $130 million, leaders say. Big-ticket items include enlarging and modernizing two new maintenance hangers to service the bigger tankers, a full-size fuselage trainer and a larger simulator building for full-motion simulators, including one for the boom operators.
Upgrades in South Burlington will run about $117 million, says Col. Adam Rice, the commander of the 158th Mission Support Group. The major projects include rebuilding the 13-inch concrete parking apron, raising the roof of a building to make room for four F-35 simulators, and renovating the operations group and fighter squadron building and the maintenance hangar.
“We're used to cable and pulley rig checks. [The KC-45] does the troubleshooting for us."
—Tech. Sgt. Mark McCassin, aircraft crew chief in the New Hampshire Air National Guard's 157th Air Refueling Wing
PALPABLE AT BOTH WINGS is a contagious energy that is not limited to those who will actually work with the new planes. Those who do are becoming subject matter experts and writing the book, warts and all, to benefit Guard units who will get the new planes down the road.
“It has energized this entire base. What has been done before? It hasn’t been done before,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Stebbins, the superintendent of the 158th Mission Support Group. “And everyone has a piece of it.” Enough so that the 955-member Vermont wing is calling 2019 “the year of the mission support group.”
That includes people who arrange for pilots and maintenance personnel to undergo F-35 training at active Air Force bases. “It’s exciting because a lot of us have only known the F-16s,” says Staff Sgt. Katherine Randall.
“We’ve worked on F-16s for so long and got good at it. This is a fresh new challenge,” added Master Sgt. Matt Gagnon, who is part of the logistics team that this summer was receiving and funneling some 900 items into the supply system for the new jets.
It’s also a challenging time for maintainers who must learn how to preserve the F-35’s low- observable stealth coating. But most other maintenance should be easier on an aircraft that is programed to tell its ground crew what parts need servicing or replacing. The KC-46 has the same attribute.
“The advances in technology, going from a 1950s weapons system to a 2019 [fly by wire] weapons system, is a huge jump,” said Tech Sgt. Mark McCassin, a crew chief at Pease. “The KC-46 is absolutely more maintenance friendly. We’re used to cable and pulley rig checks. This airplane does the troubleshooting for us.”
McCassin recalls being struck by “the complete awesomeness” of the first KC-46 he saw while visiting McConnell AFB in Kansas earlier this year. “This thing is huge,” he recalls. “And I’m going to be working on this thing? Holy crap.”
It has been equally eye opening for Senior Master Sgt. Dan Luter, who since 2002 has logged some 3,600 hours as a KC-135 boom operator. The KC-135 requires boomers to lay on their stomachs in a boom pod in the back of the plane to refuel another aircraft only 40 feet away.
Now, as the first KC-46-qualified boom operator in the Air Guard, Luter is sitting down on the job — at a sophisticated console in the Aerial Refueling Operator Station behind the cockpit and about half a football field from the planes he is refueling by boom or centerline drogue.
An array of cameras gives the boomer a panoramic view of the boom or drogues, the receivers and the airspace behind the airplane, Luter explains. “And then you’ve got a lot of information on the control display as to where the hose is and how much fuel is being offloaded.”
He no longer hears the flow of hydraulic fluid when he extends the boom or feels it make contact with the receivers. And there’s no friendly wave with the pilot who has just been refueled. “It’s a different sensory that you have compared to being in the KC-135,” Luter says.
But he considers the KC-46 a superior system. “I’m pretty confident that our boom operators, after they’ve used this system for six or eight months, would not go back to the 135 because this is such a capable aircraft.”
THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of prospective pilots to fill each KC-46 cockpit’s two seats and to fly the single-seat F-35s. Nearly 200 recently applied for an Undergraduate Pilot Training Board in South Burlington, Marek reported. Five were selected.
And while the KC-46 lacks the F-35’s speed and stealth, it is still a humongous leap in technology from the KC-135.
“It flies itself, but it’s very sensitive” was Capt. Rice’s upbeat assessment of the new tanker. “Flying the KC-135 was like driving a bus. Fly this plane like that and you’d rip the wings off.”
Rice and Lt. Col. Mark Zubricki are the 157th’s first two pilots to qualify at the controls that they say are very similar to Boeing commercial airliners. Another 80 or 90 full-time and traditional Guard pilots will be trained during the next few years, Pogorek says.
Leaders at both wings acknowledged that some of the old enlisted hands who have devoted many years to maintaining the F-16s and KC-135s are calling it a career rather than spend a lot of time mastering the intricacies of the new planes.
Those who have served perhaps a half-dozen years may be tentative about going to another aircraft, “but they’re excited as well. So there’s not a lot of exodus there. Retention has been about the same,” says Lt. Col. Brian Lepine, who commands the 158th Maintenance Squadron.
Meanwhile, recruiting is up, the new aircraft being a great lure. “The young airmen who are going through the [training] pipeline are amazing,” he says. “And all of them who are coming back are very, very excited about this F-35.”
The Vermont wing in July was also just beginning to hear from experienced people responding to nationwide ads, Lepine adds. “They are done with active duty but they’re not done with the military. They’re applying for these full-time jobs, wanting to be part of this organization. So I believe that down the road we’ll see more and more individuals who want to be part of the Guard.”
“The young airmen who are going through the [training] pipeline...are coming back very, very excited about this F-35."
—Lt. Col. Brian Lepine, commander of the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Maintenance Squadron
SO WHY is the Air Guard in general and these wings in particular getting these planes at this time? A number of factors were at play — from the grassroots to the top rungs of government.
The quality and dedication of the airmen are common denominators cited by the commanders, Pogorek and Smith. “It comes from what I call generations of excellence, generations who have done this job very well,” Pogorek says. “I think they’ve proven themselves in the flying mission.”
Both men also credited the influence that their states’ previous Air Guard leaders exercised at the National Guard Bureau and with congressional delegations to get these planes during an extremely competitive process. They include retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dubie, Vermont’s former adjutant general, and Brig. Gen. Paul Hutchinson who recently retired as New Hampshire’s assistant adjutant general-Air.
It certainly hasn’t hurt, both commanders acknowledge, that the four-star NGB chief has been a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2012, about the time when deliberations to equip Air Guard wings with these new planes were getting serious.
“It absolutely matters because the Air Force can’t do without the Guard and the Guard can’t do without the Air Force. We have to have a seat at the table to truly be partners in this effort,” says Smith. “To me, it’s not specific to the F-35. I just think it paints a picture of where the Guard is as we’ve transformed into this operational force.”
But not all in the local community share the 158th’s excitement about the new fighters. Concerns over higher noise levels began stirring up some Burlington residents even before officials announced the F-35s were coming to the city’s international airport, where fighters, including very loud F-4 Phantoms, have been based for seven decades.
The Green Mountain Boys got busy, reminding their fellow citizens that they too live around the airport and are equally concerned about environmental issues including noise.
“It’s all about communication,” says Brig. Gen. Hank Harder Jr., the wing’s vice commander until he was recently named Vermont’s assistant adjutant general-Air. Leaders and other wing members attended numerous public meetings to listen to and address concerns.
“Sometimes people aren’t satisfied with the answer,” he says. “We just try to partner with them and give them as much information as we can and then operate the aircraft safely and with the minimum impact that we can.”
Their message was really quite simple. The F-16s routinely took off with afterburners that are louder than the basic engine. The F-35s take off without them, on what is called “military power.” The noise levels are actually about the same.
In fact, a survey of Dutch residents living near the Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35 suggests the planes are actually quieter. Noise measuring equipment used by the Dutch government found the F-35 at 109 decibels, three decibels fewer than the F-16 at 112 decibels.
There was one option that may not have set well with many people in Vermont. The state might have lost its only flying wing if the F-35s did not come to South Burlington. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, brought that out last year during testimony by then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
Pointing out that the Air Force had reduced its fighter squadrons by more than half, from 134 to 56, since 1991, Wilson said “if the F-35s don’t go to Vermont, the F-16s will eventually age out, and it’s highly likely that Vermont will no longer have a flying mission for its Guard.”
In short, no other types of military aircraft — tankers or transports, for example — would be based in South Burlington, Wilson indicated.
“About 1,000 jobs were at risk of going away had we not been selected for the new mission,” says Col. Rice. That would be a blow to the local economy, insisted Burlington area business leaders who gave the Air Guard wing and the F-35s their full support. Now, Smith predicts, “the F-35 secures our future here for the next 40 or 50 years.” Furthermore, Maj. Gen. David Mikolaities, the New Hampshire adjutant general, believes the new tankers will provide Pease “with strategic relevance for the next 50 years.”
Those are positive outlooks indeed for the wings in the two states and for the entire National Guard.