24,000 feet

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
Our air refueling mission bore the call sign "DUCE 01." It was printed in capital letters written with a red marker on a dry-erase board in the planning room for the 2nd Air Refueling Squadron.

It was 3:47 p.m. on April 9. I sat in the room with seven aircrew members from the 2nd ARS as they went through their mission planning procedures on the second floor of Building 1835 - the unit's headquarters building on McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.

Lt. Col. Tim MacGregor, the 2nd ARS commander, was among the crew and served as the aircraft commander for the mission. His presence easily explained the call sign. The "DUCE" stands for the unit's designation of "2" in 2nd ARS, and the "01" meaning the squadron's commander -- Colonel MacGregor -- was leading the mission.

I was hiding my excitement. As it turned out, this would be the second air refueling mission I would fly with Colonel MacGregor. I first flew with him when he was a young captain and we were stationed together at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, in the mid-1990s. Back then, he flew the KC-135 for the 22nd ARS.

In 1995, I flew with Colonel MacGregor on a mission to refuel F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons somewhere over the Northwest U.S. Fourteen years later, I learn, as we are being briefed by pilot 1st Lt. Matthew Natale, that we'll be flying over the Southeast U.S. We'll be aboard a KC-10 Extender that will off-load more than 15,000 pounds of fuel to an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, aircraft.

The mission we were preparing for could almost be considered standard procedure. After all, every base with air refueling aircraft has to do local training flights and this one fell into that category. To me, however, this was more than a regular flight. It was also a flight that represented freedom.

Each and every Air Force plane represents freedom because on each tail of each plane you can see the American flag so proudly displayed. Wherever our Air Force planes fly, freedom goes with them. On this day it was going with us all the way to 24,000 feet.

Not that flying with Colonel MacGregor and his top-notch crew wasn't reason enough, I was here to write a story about one of the boom operators on the mission, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Essick, who was going to refuel a plane carrying his dad, Chief Master Sgt. Randal Money -- an E-8C flight engineer. It was Chief Money's final flight and I was there to cover and document the event for public affairs reasons.
I was ready to go.

By 4:53 p.m., we arrived by bus to McGuire's base operations building. I followed Colonel MacGregor, Lieutenant Natale and two other pilots from the 2nd ARS -- Capt. David Spellman and 1st Lt. Colin Eames -- into the building. Sergeant Essick and co-crew members, flight engineer Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Mahoney and evaluator boom operator Master Sgt. Lynn Thatcher, stayed on the bus and went "out to the jet" to begin preparing it for the mission.

Inside base operations, at 5:01 p.m., I listened as Colonel MacGregor talked to his fellow pilots about practicing "hard 90s" while maneuvering a KC-10 on the flightline's taxiways. In his explanation to me, he was telling them the right way to drive the 181-foot KC-10 on a taxiway while performing a 90-degree turn. It was just one of many moments during the evening where I'd see him take an opportunity to do some training with his fellow crew members.

By 5:36 p.m., a bus picked us up from base operations and brought us out to the flightline to our KC-10. Inside, Colonel MacGregor was talking to his aircrew teammates again going over pre-flight checklists and adding training advice along the way. Standing near him was Chief Mahoney who was talking with two KC-10 maintenance crew chiefs about the plane itself. At the back of the plane, Sergeants Thatcher and Essick were wrapping up their pre-flight operations for the boom pod.

I stayed on the periphery, my camera and I silently recording the aircrew's activities. About half an hour later, we got the word from the maintenance superintendent that our plane had maintenance issues and couldn't fly. There would be a two-hour delay. By now, it was 6:07 p.m.

At 6:22 p.m., Colonel MacGregor told everyone we would be flying on a different KC-10. By 6:33 p.m. we aboard the new plane. Everyone went back into action, doing pre-flight checklists and preparations. At 7:17 p.m., pre-flight work was complete and engines were started.

As the engines roared to life, I got to sit in the jump seat in the cockpit. Camera in hand, I felt the "vrrrrroooooooooooom" of the three General Electric CF6-50C2 engines charged the entire aircraft. These engines, each capable of 52,500 pounds of thrust, make it feel like you could "blast off" like a rocket when they start up. As they continue to run though, you get used to it.

Soon we were taxiing for take-off. For about 15 to 20 minutes, Colonel MacGregor had Lieutenant Natale practice his "hard 90s" in the plane. They also accomplished "180s" where they turned the 150-foot-wide KC-10 completely around -- 180 degrees -- on a 142-foot-wide runway. As Colonel MacGregor told me, "You have very little room for error." I'd have to say Lieutenant Natale did an excellent job.

At 7:43 p.m., we were lined up and ready to take off. A minute later, the engines accelerated and off we went ... up, up and away.

During the take-off, the KC-10 left the ground in mere seconds. Those powerful engines pushed the multi-ton aircraft forward while its 165-foot wingspan gave it the lift. We were on our way to a cruising altitude of 24,000 feet. Our flight path would skirt us down the Eastern Seaboard from New Jersey to somewhere near North and South Carolina.

By 8:21 p.m., we were cruising comfortably at 24,000 feet. Colonel MacGregor, Lieutenant Natale and Chief Mahoney were reviewing flight data and chattering through numbers and flight data. Lieutenant Natale told me at this moment we were 82 miles from our receiver -- the E-8C.

Thirteen minutes later, at 8:34 p.m., I left the cockpit and headed back toward the KC-10's boom pod area and I wasn't a moment too soon. By the time I worked my way down and got seated and buckled again, the JSTARS was getting closer for its refueling.

The E-8C JSTARS is an interesting plane. Flown by the Georgia Air National Guard's 116th Air Control Wing, it's a modified Boeing 707 commercial airframe, much like the KC-135. The difference is the airframe of the E-8C has to be extensively remanufactured and modified with radar, communications, operations and control subsystems for its mission. A mission that, according to its Air Force fact sheet, "provides theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces."

Back in the boom pod, I had my Nikon D-40 ready to take photos without a flash through a set of night vision goggles. I'd only done this six times before and it was during a "lights-out" combat air refueling missions over Baghdad. Once I got to work though, it was like old times.

As I took photos, I could hear Sergeant Essick talking with the pilot of the E-8C and with his dad. He later told me they talked about flying and even golf. By 9:13 p.m., we broke contact with the E-8C for the last time and it was time to head back to New Jersey.

On the way back, Colonel MacGregor and the aircrew got in some additional flying training. From the time the refueling was complete until 11:41 p.m. when we landed, the aircrew team practiced "touch and go" approaches and take-offs from McGuire.

I took the time flying back to reflect on the whole trip, of what I saw and how I was feeling. That word, "freedom" kept coming back. In my Air Force career to this point, all 17 years of it, I've found that I also like the "freedom" aircrews experience when they hug the stratosphere in their planes doing their part for our Air Force, extending global reach and building air bridges.

I've experienced it myself numerous times, for example, through more than 90 flights on the KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 in the skies over the U.S., Iraq and many other places. When I've flown on an Air Force plane, I find it completely different than a civilian version. For me, I feel the "freedom" of flight a lot more on an Air Force jet.

But mostly I felt what I did before we even left. On April 9, on my fifth flight on the KC-10 Extender, I recalled and remember that freedom isn't free and it's because of people like Colonel MacGregor and his team who are always there to ensure we keep that freedom. They help keep us free on the ground ... and at 24,000 feet.