The Dark World Of USAF Special Ops Air Refuelers And Their Modified KC-135RT Tankers

We talk to an elite group of specially trained airmen that fuel low flying special operations aircraft in total darkness and in radio silence.

No light, No problem
U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt Chris Sullivan

A long-upheld Air Force axiom states that 'nobody kicks ass without tanker gas' (NKAWTG). That includes special operations aviators flying secretive, sometimes covert or clandestine missions at low altitude, under the darkness of night, deep into contested airspace. But refueling these aircraft under such circumstances isn't the job of any tanker squadron, it falls on a select group of KC-135 tanker pilots, boom operators, and navigators that have quietly supplied this unique capability to the Air Force special operations community for decades.

Now, these elite aviators and airman have been allowed to come forward to talk exclusively to The War Zone about their highly unique mission and the special tactics and equipment they wield in order to execute it successfully.

When you think of a KC-135 Stratotanker, low-level operations in total darkness and radio silence doesn't come to mind. But for a cadre of 22nd Air Refueling Wing personnel based at McConnell AFB, this is an operational reality that they train tirelessly for. 

The low altitude aspect of the mission is tactically relevant for a number of reasons. First of which is the fact that heavy, slow, and low-flying turboprop special operations aircraft don't have to struggle to climb up to the KC-135R's normal speed and operating altitudes just to get gas. But the tactic also limits the reach of enemy sensors and especially those on the surface of the earth that are limited by their line of sight in relation to the horizon. At a distance, even aircraft flying in the single thousands of feet can remain undetected during the critical refueling operations.

Working with McConnell Air Force base's 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, The War Zone was able to interview a group of special operations air refueling (SOAR) crewmen so that they could give their unique view of this shadowy mission set. 

Major Bradlee Seehawer, the Deputy Chief of Special Operations Air Refueling with the 22nd Operations Group, describes the SOAR mission as such:

"The special operations mission is really defined by the modifications for the KC-135 and how we use it to support our special operations forces. At its core, it's the same air refueling mission that we do for any other receiver any time of day, but because they [the aircraft] have additional mission requirements, we have some additional capabilities. 

I like breaking it down into three primary distinctions. The special operations tankers, they have additional communications capabilities on the aircraft. We can do refueling in low light situations through our use of night vision goggles. We are also the only KC-135 mission that still requires the use of a navigator. All the KC-135 navigators are here in McConnell.

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It really comes down to our training and the flexibility that we can provide. We train above and beyond the typical KC-135 crew to be able to perform this mission and to ensure a flawless performance during the dynamic special operations missions that can require us to plan and replan in quicker intervals than you normally expect in a normal KC-135 mission.

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Due to receiver requirements, it can happen at night and in situations where we don't want to be heard or seen. That goes back to, again, one of those core capabilities of low light and low emissions air refueling. We do refueling with NVGs, night vision goggles. That's unique to us. We can do it quietly with reduced radio chatter so that we're not producing or emitting as much noise."

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alan Ricker

A McConnell SOAR boom operator prepares to refuel a C-130 under darkness with the help of night vision goggles. 

All KC-135 crews are trained in emissions control (EMCON) operating procedures, but the special operations tanker crews train as if it is part of everyday operations. They are far more experienced with dealing with the challenges surrounding executing tanking operations without the use of traditional radio communications, not to mention doing it while blacked out, and at low altitudes.

The airframe primarily used for the most challenging of SOAR missions is not the standard KC-135R, but is the rare KC-135RT variant. Fewer of this type exist than the number of fingers on your hands, based on our research. 

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo

McConnell ground crews prepare a KC-135 for a nighttime sortie.

The jet is specially modified in a number of ways. These enhancements include a refueling receptacle above the cockpit so that the KC-135RTs themselves can be refueled by other tankers—a feature standard Stratotankers do not have.

Major Jonathan Rey, the Chief of Special Operations Air Refueling for the 22nd Operations Group, describes this capability in more detail:

"They are able to accept gas from other tanker aircraft whether that be a KC-135 or a KC-10. It gives them more flexibility to actually refuel their receivers. 

U.S. Air Force photo/ 2nd Lt. Christopher Buzzetta

A KC-135RT is about to take gas from another KC-135. The 'RTs' are distinguishable by their aerial refueling receptacle above the cockpit and by an array of antennas strewn around their fuselages.

Major Seehawer adds that missions can include tankers working together, not just to refuel special operations aircraft, but also to replenish their own KC-135RTs. Often this includes working with other 'RTs' as a team to accomplish a complex mission:

"We have that capability [taking gas from other tankers]. Not necessarily that we employ it very often, but we can do that, absolutely. With this being a unique asset to McConnell, it's something that we tend to do mostly internally. Of course, we're always willing to take someone else's gas. If someone wants to come and give us some plugs, we're open to it."

Being able to consolidate gas from other tankers provides greater flexibility to a larger combined tanker force during complex operations. This is especially true if a mission runs long due to bad weather, or any of many possible contingencies, and aircraft run low on gas. SOAR crews can get low and closer to thirsty receivers without taking on too much risk. For special operations aircraft, they can do all this with minimal communications and without lighting up.

This capability is often 'stacked' with other special operations tankers, like the MC-130, whereby the KC-135 SOAR crews pass gas to the MC-130 so that it can refuel low-flying helicopters and Ospreys as they push in and out of their target areas. The KC-135RTs can be topped off by other KC-135s and KC-10s to keep the special operations MC-130 laden with fuel to pass to its thirsty, low and slow flying receivers.

A unique communications suite is another major asset that the RC-135RT brings to the table and it's clearly more elaborate than the one on standard KC-135Rs. Beyond satellite connectivity and data-links, it's not exactly known what the 'RT's' configuration entails, but KC-135s can be equipped with roll-on communications gateways—like the Roll-On Beyond line-of-sight Enhancement, or ROBE—that can be massive force multipliers for themselves and everyone around them. Although we don't know for sure if this is part of KC-135RT's communications arsenal, clearly the one it has is quite capable. 

Seehawer continues to elaborate on the KC-135RT's unique features: 

"All the SOAR aircraft, they have modifications as far as the communications piece to it. That's standard through the SOAR KC-135 fleet.

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We use them to maintain direct contact with our receivers and our liaison officers. That allows us to get updated refueling information to dynamically replan our missions in the air to best suit the fast-paced special operations missions that we support."

Major Seehawer also noted that it doesn't necessarily require a KC-135RT to execute the SOAR mission set, as it depends on the mission requirements:

"It's something worth noting that all of the receiver-capable KC-135s that we have at McConnell fall under the umbrella of special operations support, but they are not an inherent capability that we use to define the special operations air refueling asset. It's something that we have and that we provide to our users. Again, we train constantly to make sure that we're proficient in it, but it's not something that's inherently defining special operations air refueling."

As to who exactly is designated as a SOAR 'customer,' that is a little more opaque based on our interview. Clearly, AC-130 gunships and MC-130 special operations transport variants of the venerable Hercules airlifter are known benefactors of the KC-135 community's SOAR capabilities, and the C-17 also has a special operation support role. But beyond that, the matter becomes sensitive in nature. 

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alan Ricker

A KC-135RT refuels an AC-130 gunship at low altitude. In this case, the lights are on, but the operation can be done by SOAR tanker crews in total darkness.

The 22nd Air Refueling Wing doesn't 'own' the assets they service and cannot speak for the units that do. Major Rey did mention that they usually embed one of their own onboard a receiver aircraft during SOAR missions:

"We usually operate with one of our personnel embedded with our users. They facilitate that liaison and coordinate all that stuff. They're the ones that actually manage that aspect of it, a constantly changing mission set and all the rest of the players that are in the fight."

When it comes to the low-altitude aspect of their mission, it was made clear that they couldn't disclose just how low they get, but it was also made clear that other KC-135s and qualified crews can do lower-level refueling as well. But once again, the fact that they can do it under special circumstances, and have a unique capacity to navigate to their refueling points, and make quick changes to their mission plan on the fly to ensure mission success makes them different.

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ryan Zeski

Major Seehawer explains how the challenges their missions often include differentiates them from the rest of the KC-135 force:

"I think it's that communications aspect. Potentially there's a lot going on, although additional comms capabilities and the navigator is sitting there monitoring it to make sure that the crew is operating in a safe manner and we know where we're supposed to go. There is a lot more information and flexibility that's required of us that we have to use to support our users in real-time. I think that's a significant challenge.

Major Rey adds:

"I'd also say Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) use, that's not standard use throughout the KC-135 fleet. We're the only ones that actually use the NVGs. The pilot's using NVGs is out of the mode of what the normal KC-135 pilot would do. Having an extra person in the cockpit like a navigator is imperative for us to be able to do the mission.

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From a pilot seat, you have to be able to see the receiver. Even the best NVGs out there, you're not going to be able to see your receiver aircraft all that well. It takes a little bit of practice to be able to acquire and be able to be able to get on track and get in front of the receiver."

DoD via National Archives

A night vision photo taken in 1991 of a KC-135 crew during Desert Storm. Navigators have all but disappeared from the KC-135 fleet, and their stations have been stripped of much of their original equipment. But the KC-135RT still have a navigator onboard.

Major Seehawer paints a larger picture of how all this plays together during an actual mission:

"Keeping in mind that it's low emissions and low visibility, so it's going to be dark out. We're not necessarily going to be able to see a receiver very easily. These NVGs will help us spot them with the light that's available. That combined with precision timing, and again, navigation gets us to where we need to be to conduct that refueling.

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As far as painting a picture of the situations where it's dark, it's night, we can't see the receiver, but as far as the actual environments that we're in, we operate in a variety of unique and constantly changing environments. It's hard to pin it down to any one specific area. Like I said, we're bound by the same regulations as any other KC-135, so we're not dipping and diving. We're not doing anything unsafe. We just use all that additional training to accomplish the refuelings in the expeditious and competent manner that only McConnell can do."

U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt Chris Sullivan/Released

SOAR 'customers' often fly missions at low altitudes at night, like this MC-130J Commando II flying over the North Sea.

Training crews to do this is not a simple task. They need to be ready to operate virtually anywhere in the world and under classified circumstances, executing highly complex and dynamic missions on short notice. 

Major Seehawer states:

"Training-wise, again, the specialized use of the reduced communications and our low light capabilities require some additional training. The crews are trained extensively on how to use the NVGs and the comm equipment that we have. We also practice... We train extensively both at home station and abroad to make sure that we are proficient in all aspects of the mission."

As if refueling another aircraft under normal conditions isn't hard enough, SOAR boom operators also have to master low-altitude refueling. This can drastically change the way the boom reacts. Michael Sage, the KC-135 Special Operations Mission Manager at McConnell, has experience in the boomer's pod and describes this issue as such:

"The air refueling boom is at a slower speed. It's a lot harder to control, so it's more challenging for the boom operator to make the contacts with the receiver. It's just less airflow over the control surfaces for the boom, so it doesn't react quite as quickly."

Youtube Screencap

Major Rey also gives his perspective on how special training is the backbone of the KC-135's SOAR capability and how individuals are selected to join the elite and small community:

"From a pilot's perspective, learning to fly with the navigator is a lot different for a lot of the guys and it is a big deal at McConnell because there aren't very many navigators and this is the only base for it and for this mission specifically. Learning to fly and the delegation of roles and everything else is a big piece of it.

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Just like all the reqs (requirements) of the special certifications and everything else that happens, that is a squadron commander's directive. Squadron commanders choose the individuals to actually go into the specific programs. That applies to SOAR and to the 'RT' receiver capable tankers. Squadron commanders actually delegate all of that."

As for the size of KC-135 SOAR community, it definitely isn't large, but actual numbers are classified. Major Seehawer elaborates:

"Nothing specific we can give as far as numbers, however, we have told you that the 22nd Air Refueling Wing is the only place where you're going to find Special Operations Air Refueling. Actually, as a result, I'm proud of us being the only KC-135 community to support all nine combatant commands with our support of special operations. No specific numbers, but we do have approximately 3,800 people on base. It's somewhere between zero and 3,800."

U.S. Air Force photos/Airman 1st Class Christopher Thornbury

KC-135RTs sit peacefully on the ramp at McConnell AFB.

With anti-access/area-denial tactics being put into play by America's most capable peer state competitors, being able to enhance survivability by refueling aircraft at lower altitudes, in essence keeping them outside the detection horizon of threat radars, seems like it could become a far more widespread tactic than in the past. And clearly, USAF decision makers are very concerned with the vulnerability of the tanker fleet. With this in mind, I asked if this capability could become more widespread in the future. Here's what Major Seehawer said:

"While that would certainly be in the realm of the feasibility, it's probably in the realm of the possible with the upcoming KC-46, which in and of itself is going to provide greater situational awareness for those connections with other aircraft and also avoiding contact and threats through their additional capability. There's something else coming that should be better suited for that than what we provide at the current point."

USAF

KC-46 undergoing electromagnetic emissions tests in the large anechoic chamber at Edwards AFB. The new tanker has an advanced communications system that may even eclipse that of the KC-135RT. In addition, it has survivability upgrades as well, such as missile approach warning and countermeasures system. Other enhanced situational awareness capabilities will allow crews to better understand the threats in their operating area.

The KC-46 Pegusus' imminent arrival into the USAF's inventory looms large over the KC-135 community in general, but this is especially so for McConnell AFB which was designated as one of the first bases to receive the jet years ago. $267M has been spent just on infrastructure improvements at the base to accommodate the new aircraft. But could the far more advanced KC-46A take on the SOAR role? Lieutenant Daniel de La Fe, Acting Chief of Public Affairs with the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, responded to the query:

"We can't really speculate too much about the KC-46 now with all of this in the news. I know that once it gets here, there will be a crew workload study that's going to be performed during the IOT—the initial operational test and eval—to determine what missions it can and can't support.

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The KC-135 is going to continue this SOAR mission well into the future. As with our specialized operators here, it'll ease that transition of the KC-46 coming in to fill that role somewhere down the line."

Major Rey added:

"We've been told by the KC-46 personnel that that aircraft is going to be taking this mission set on. As soon as it lands here they want to try to start testing it making sure that she'll be able to fill all the requirements that the KC-135 currently can do."

Boeing

KC-46 refeulls another KC-46 during testing. Like the KC-135RT, the KC-46 has a refueling receptacle.

The KC-46 could provide a big boost to the SOAR mission if it can execute it under actual operational conditions. As we have seen with the second generation 767 tanker derivative, nothing seems simple and the program has been plagued with setbacks

Major Seehawer does see the jet's larger fuel carrying capability as a potential boon for the SOAR mission:

"We're talking about the capabilities of the KC-46, but especially in terms of being able to be refueled, I would also talk about our KC-135s and the ones that can be refueled [KC-135RTs]. It's not necessarily allowing us also more fuel [for offload]. That is a possibility, but we can also just use it to stay aloft for longer periods of time. There are a couple different ways you can employ that additional fuel whether it's in a KC-46 or a KC-135. Ultimately, you're right. The KC-46 will provide a new approach to providing strategic air power for sure."

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alan Ricker

The cockpit of one of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing's KC-135 during a SOAR mission. The center stack of 'steam gauges' are being replaced by large screen displays on KC-135Rs, although it's not clear if the SOAR optimized KC-135RT models will get a similar enhancement.

The KC-135R fleet is going through a major upgrade, one that brings more automation, better situational awareness, and improved crew resource management to the 60-year-old aircraft's cockpit. Known as the 'Block 45' configuration, it would seem that this update would be a particularly useful enhancement for the small KC-135RT force. Although our interviewees couldn't comment on that possibility specifically, changes are coming to the KC-135RT fleet. Major Seehawer breaks down the situation for us:

"We talked about that navigator a little bit. Navigators have been on their way out of the KC-135 community since the early 2000s. With KC-46 coming around, we're just at the end of the line for that crew position. We're transitioning and preparing for the next generation of special operations air refueling through our additional pilot program. Instead of a navigator, you're going to have an additional pilot that will sit in that navigator seat and provide the situational awareness and communications management that the navigator used to provide. That is a new paradigm for us that we're currently working through."

22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

A KC-135RT approaches the boom of another KC-135. 

As for the question of where and when has this capability has been employed operationally, the McConnell SOAR crew could not answer that question due to security restrictions. But the point was made abundantly clear that it happens everywhere it's needed and it definitely has been needed. 

But really, they don't have to make a case for this mission's utility. The USAF hasn't kept a small fleet of specialized tankers and aircrews around through multiple budget massacres over the decades or vanity's sake. This is a critical, high-demand, low-density capability that is likely more relevant now than it ever has been.

McConnell AFB takes great pride in their full-aspect air refueling mission, including their seldom discussed SOAR capabilities. Major Seehawer sums up this reality perfectly: 

"McConnell's motto is 'we are AR.' We define air refueling in all aspects. We're the only one that does that. I'm very proud that I could've been at this base for as long as I have been."

McConnell AFB/USAF

An impressive line of McConnell-based KC-135s execute the 'elephant walk' during a readiness drill.

Author's note: A huge thanks to Lt. Daniel de La Fe of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs shop for working for months with us on this article. When you get a good PAO great things can happen and opening up this historically very shy aspect of USAF tanker ops for all us to appreciate was not an easy task. He truly loves McConnell AFB's mission and it shows in his work ethic and motivation. His help in making this happen is greatly appreciated. Also special thanks to Major Seehawer, Major Rey, and Michael Sage for sharing their thoughts and unique point of views with us.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com