KC-135 tankers are parked near a flight line in central Saudi Arabia in November, 1992.

KC-135 tankers are parked near a flight line in central Saudi Arabia in November, 1992. (Rob Jagodzinski / ©S&S)

CENTRAL SAUDI ARABIA — An Air Force aerial refueling squadron from Okinawa has arrived for duty in Saudi Arabia and is "pushing the limit to get the job done," airmen in the unit said this past weekend.

The final group of pilots and crewmen of the 909th Aerial Refueling Squadron, out of Kadena Air Base, flew into Saudi Arabia on Friday to bring the unit to full strength for its Operation Desert Shield deployment. This week, the squadron's KC-135 fuel tankers are among the 1,100 aircraft flying assigned to support exercise "Imminent Thunder," a beach-assault drill along the shores of the Persian Gulf in northern Saudi Arabia.

Above the Gulf, "A lot of limits have changed as to how far we'll go to get the job done," said Staff Sgt. Mike Densore, 35, from Warsaw, N.Y. "There are a lot more flights here than at Kadena ... here we're flying four to five days in a row," said Densore, who operates a refueling boom in the tail of a KC-135 tanker.

NAVY, MARINE AND AIR FORCE warplanes depend on aerial refueling to keep them aloft during combat air patrols above the Gulf and Saudi desert. Therefore, tankers from the 909th and other units deployed to Desert Shield have been flying twice their normal hours to meet the need, airmen from the squadron said.

Densore pointed out that if war breaks out, the squadron will fly its unarmed tankers well within the range of hostile Iraqi fighters and ground-to-air missiles.

"This is too close for a tanker unit to be to the front," Densore said. "They're saying this is the first war for tankers to be shot down."

Pilots with the 909th agreed that their job could take them into contested air space.

"In Vietnam, tankers flew outside of SAM (surface to air missile) range and outside of fighter range," said Capt. Larry Palm, 44, a tanker pilot from Austin, Texas. "But here we're going to be real close to SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery. And a tanker has no defense ..."

WHILE PALM SAID THAT "Yes, Iraqi air power is a threat," he noted that he has "complete confidence because our fighters will be all over the Iraqi Air Force. The U.S. pilots will say, `there's a MIG (jet) out there and I want it ...' our fighters will be racing to kill Iraqi (war planes)."

Capt. Bridget Malfer, a tanker navigator, said that unlike the Far East, a navigational error near the northern Saudi border "could get you shot down." Malfer, 26, from Bloomington, Ind., said that "It's easy on regular training missions to get a little lax," but the crews are now "a lot more serious about flying."

Capt. Tom Swiderek, who flies a tanker with the squadron, admitted that "this is close for tankers to be to a battle area." But the 28-year old Chicago native said that "I don't worry about it too much ... There will be so many (U.S.) fighters jumping at the chance to shoot the Iraqis down."

Swiderek said that, more than the enemy threat, he worries about a mid-air collision with a friendly aircraft. He and other pilots agree that heavy air traffic will saturate the skies in the event of war, and some aviators question the ability of Saudi Arabian air traffic controllers to keep planes' paths from crossing.

"I don't think they've ever had this much traffic here. They're overtasked," said tanker pilot Capt. Chuck Ruhl, 34, from Richmond, Va. He said that American fliers and Saudi air traffic controllers sometimes have difficulty understanding each other and that the Saudis often use radios that are not compatible with those in the refueling jets.

RUHL NOTED SOME guidelines that Saudis follow are "extreme." For example, "We cannot take off if an incoming aircraft is within 30 miles of landing," he said.

However, Ruhl said he knows from firsthand experience that the Saudis are competent and that they can work safely under pressure.

"We had an in-flight emergency the last flight ... and the controllers got us in. they're capable and they were prepared," Ruhl said. He explained that "we had an electrical fire in the cockpit. They (Saudis) knew their emergency procedures well. We had to get down soon and they ... cleared traffic so that we could fly straight in to the airport."

Through that experience, Ruhl said he learned that "everybody was ready. That made me feel good." He jokingly said that the fire allowed his crew "to test the (controller) system. And it worked."

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