TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – At 5:30 a.m. June 1, while most people are probably sleeping at Travis Air Force Base, California, seven aircrew members from the 6th Air Refueling Squadron meet to discuss their mission.
In a few hours the team, along with two flying crew chiefs from the 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, will prep their jet and begin their journey, one that will take them more than 9,000 nautical miles from the United States to Japan and back.
The mission involves refueling two U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles as they travel from Eielson AFB, Alaska to Kadena Air Base, Japan, and six Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s as they fly from Japan to Alaska to participate in exercise Red Flag-Alaska, an advanced aerial combat training exercise.
International refueling operations are significant, said Capt. Eddie Miller, 6th Air Refueling Squadron assistant flight commander and the KC-10 aircraft commander for the mission.
“If you look at how we operate in nearly any conflict over the past two or three decades, most everything we do is with other nations,” Miller said. “Having international allies all across the world, especially in the Pacific realm, is critical to our success.”
“Helping our friends in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force move their aircraft to Alaska so they can participate in an international exercise is vital to our national defense and helps us further our relationship with Japan,” he said.
Miller and his team arrived at Eielson AFB, Alaska, during the afternoon of June 1 after flying 1,855 nautical miles from Travis to prep for the refueling mission. Several hours later on June 2, they were back in the clouds providing refueling support for two U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles as they flew across the Pacific Ocean.
Staff Sgt. Zacharia Ploeger, 6th ARS boom operator, refueled the fighters offloading approximately 78,000 pounds of fuel to the aircraft.
“Being a boom operator is a pretty rewarding job,” he said. “I get to see the impact we have every day. We take fighters across the Pacific and into several areas all over the world.”
Ploeger has supported more than 80 sorties as a boom operator since November 2014. He’s responsible for the loading and unloading of cargo, passenger handling, as well as safety and emergency equipment.
“Basically, I’m responsible for everything behind the cockpit door to the back of the aircraft,” he said.
He’s also responsible for guiding U.S. and international aircraft into position so they can be safely refueled thousands of feet in the sky.
On June 4, Ploeger refueled six Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s during a flight from Misawa Air Base, Japan, to Alaska. He offloaded nearly 130,000 pounds of fuel as he refueled the fighters enabling them to fly more than 2,900 nautical miles and arrive safely in Alaska.
Maj. Kento Yamasaki, an F-15 pilot for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s 304th Fighter Squadron, kept a watchful eye on the mission from inside the KC-10.
“I’m responsible for monitoring the refueling of our six fighters and keeping our headquarters informed,” he said. “We conduct a joint refueling effort with the United States at least once a year. We participate in Red Flag annually, and we’re usually refueled by U.S. Air Force tankers on the way to Alaska and on the way home.”
Kento said Japan appreciates the opportunity to fly missions alongside their American counterparts.
“Missions like this give us a chance to improve our skills, but more importantly, this mission allows our countries to enhance our relationship,” Kento said. “Because of this mission, we will be able to join the exercise in Alaska which is a big event for us. We aren’t able to participate in such a large exercise in Japan, so for us, being able to partake in Red Flag-Alaska is very important.”
The mission also enhances understanding between the two air forces, Kento added.
“The big benefit we gain is to better understand each other,” he said. “I’m on the KC-10 now. By being here and engaging with your crew, I can understand what you do and why you do it. Similarly, your leaders can learn about our tactics and procedures.”
“The bond between the United States and Japan is strong, and with efforts like today’s we are making that bond even stronger and working together to counter potential bad actors,” Kento said.
Miller echoed Kento’s sentiments.
“Our pilots and crew members learned a little more about what it takes to operate in a foreign country and work with our Japanese counterparts,” he said. “One challenge we had to overcome was the language barrier. We all experience the difficulty a language barrier can present and this mission allowed us to work together and try to figure out how to work through that.”
The Travis KC-10 with its nine crew members returned home on June 6 after offloading more than 200,000 pounds of fuel supporting fighter aircraft.