100 years of air refueling: a legacy strengthened at RED FLAG-Alaska 23-2

  • Published
  • By Maria Galvez
  • JBER Public Affairs
During the recent RED FLAG-Alaska 23-2 exercise, which brought together U.S. and international partners, the legacy of air refueling was highlighted by showcasing its crucial contribution to military readiness and cooperation. From its humble beginnings to its modern applications, air refueling has evolved into an essential component of aerial operations, enhancing capabilities and strengthening alliances.

A century ago, on June 27, 1923, the United States Army Air Service achieved a groundbreaking feat when a De Haviland DH-4B aircraft successfully passed 75 gallons of gasoline through a hose to another DH-4B flying beneath it. This marked the world's first air-to-air refueling using a gravity-flow hose, laying the foundation for a technique that would shape the future of aviation. Since then, air refueling has undergone significant advancements, becoming instrumental in military and civilian aviation worldwide.

At RF-A 23-2, held in the vast Alaskan airspace, air refueling took center stage as participating nations showcased their capabilities and interoperability. This multinational exercise allowed Air Forces from different countries to come together, strengthening their joint operational readiness and fostering international partnerships. The seamless integration of air refueling operations was a testament to the collaborative efforts and shared commitment to maintaining peace and security.

“The 909th Air Refueling Squadron is no stranger to working in contested airspace, under conflict, and under stress,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Robert Raey, the flight safety chief assigned to the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan. “That’s what we do every day.”

The 909th ARS was able to exercise its aerial refueling mission and capabilities during RF-A 23-2.

“The tanker gives the U.S. military the ability to move any aircraft, anywhere on a moment’s notice without compromising lethality,” said Raey. “We are also able to develop combat-ready aviators by conducting these trainings and offering millions of pounds of fuel to feed the fleet of aircraft and extend the length of time a military aircraft can remain over a target, taking fuel endurance into account.”

Many different units contribute to the RF-A 23-2 air refueling mission, including the 22nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas.

“We perform routine inspections and maintenance on refueling aircraft to ensure their airworthiness and operational readiness, “ said Staff Sgt. Conner Walters, a KC-46 Pegasus flying crew chief assigned to the 22nd AMXS. “Secondly, we conduct repairs and troubleshoot any issues that arise during refueling operations, minimizing downtime and maximizing mission effectiveness.”

Walters went on to describe how the 22nd AMXS coordinates with other maintenance units to ensure the availability of spare parts and equipment required for refueling aircraft and the training and mentoring that goes into preparing the up-and-coming refueling operations workforce.

The strategic importance of air refueling was evident throughout the exercise, as it enabled aircraft to extend their range and endurance, projecting power across the vast distance of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex. The JPARC airspace covers more than 77,000 square miles and provides a realistic training environment, allowing Airmen to train for full spectrum engagements, ranging from individual skills to complex, large-scale joint engagements.

By refueling in mid-air, aircraft can remain on station for extended periods, conduct complex missions, and respond rapidly to emerging threats. This capability greatly enhances the effectiveness of military campaigns and reinforces the stability of regions where security is a shared concern.

During the exercise, the 22nd AMXS crew chiefs ensured the KC-46 crews successfully completed four training missions, each resulting in a 100% success rate for the Blue-Side defense operations portion of RF-A 23-2.

This ultimately boosted combat simulations but also fostered joint interoperability with participating coalition nations, strengthening international partnerships for modern threat response in the process.

“Air refueling propels our Nation’s air power across the skies, unleashing its full potential,” said Gen. Mike Minihan, the Air Mobility Command commander. “It connects our strategic vision with operational reality, ensuring we can reach any corner of the globe with unwavering speed and precision. Air refueling embodies our resolve to defend freedom and project power, leaving an indelible mark on aviation history.”

Looking to the future, air refueling will continue to evolve, adapting to new challenges and emerging technologies. The recent exercise at RED FLAG-Alaska 23-2 demonstrated the spirit of collaboration and innovation that drives the advancement of air refueling techniques.

As international partners united under the common goal of enhancing collective security, air refueling remains a cornerstone of aerial operations, enabling aircraft to reach new heights and fulfill their potential in an ever-changing world. The legacy of air refueling continues to evolve, paving the way for a future where global aviation capabilities are strengthened, alliances are fortified, and missions are accomplished with unparalleled efficiency and effectiveness.

“As we embark on the next 100 years of air refueling, we will continue to strengthen our air mobility excellence,” said Minihan. “We must leverage the remarkable capabilities of air refueling to preserve peace, protect freedom, and bring hope to the world. As Mobility Airmen, we write the next chapter of air refueling.”