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Staff Sgt. Melvin Dunham, dedicated crew chief for a KC-135R tanker with the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, stands on the Misawa Air Base flightline Tuesday preparing to launch the tanker on a Cope North exercise mission.
Staff Sgt. Melvin Dunham, dedicated crew chief for a KC-135R tanker with the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, stands on the Misawa Air Base flightline Tuesday preparing to launch the tanker on a Cope North exercise mission. (Wayne Specht / S&S)
Staff Sgt. Melvin Dunham, dedicated crew chief for a KC-135R tanker with the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, stands on the Misawa Air Base flightline Tuesday preparing to launch the tanker on a Cope North exercise mission.
Staff Sgt. Melvin Dunham, dedicated crew chief for a KC-135R tanker with the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, stands on the Misawa Air Base flightline Tuesday preparing to launch the tanker on a Cope North exercise mission. (Wayne Specht / S&S)
Capt. Rusty Evers checks over paperwork while his KC-135R tanker flies on autopilot 21,000 feet over the Sea of Japan Tuesday. He was flying an air refueling mission for American and Japanese fighter aircraft flying in the Cope North exercise.
Capt. Rusty Evers checks over paperwork while his KC-135R tanker flies on autopilot 21,000 feet over the Sea of Japan Tuesday. He was flying an air refueling mission for American and Japanese fighter aircraft flying in the Cope North exercise. (Wayne Specht / S&S)
The hand of 1st Lt. Jeff Guttman adjusts engine throttles in the cockpit of a KC-135R tanker flying over the Sea of Japan during Cope North exercises Tuesday.
The hand of 1st Lt. Jeff Guttman adjusts engine throttles in the cockpit of a KC-135R tanker flying over the Sea of Japan during Cope North exercises Tuesday. (Wayne Specht / S&S)
A Japanese Air Self-Defense F-15 Eagle fighter approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135R 21,000 feet above the Sea of Japan Tuesday during the Cope North exercise. It marked only the second time Japanese fighters practiced air-to-air refueling with an American forces tanker.
A Japanese Air Self-Defense F-15 Eagle fighter approaches the refueling boom of a KC-135R 21,000 feet above the Sea of Japan Tuesday during the Cope North exercise. It marked only the second time Japanese fighters practiced air-to-air refueling with an American forces tanker. (Wayne Specht / S&S)
1st Lt. Jeff Guttman keeps his eyes on readouts and dials in the cockpit of a KC-135R tanker flying over the Sea of Japan Tuesday during Cope North exercises.
1st Lt. Jeff Guttman keeps his eyes on readouts and dials in the cockpit of a KC-135R tanker flying over the Sea of Japan Tuesday during Cope North exercises. (Wayne Specht / S&S)

ABOARD TORA 61 OVER THE SEA OF JAPAN — Thirteen years before Capt. Rusty Evers was born in 1973, the four-engine KC-135R tanker aircraft he now pilots rolled off the Boeing Co. assembly line.

As missions changed over the years, the tanker has been modified with newer engines, each producing 22,000 lbs. of thrust, and enhanced avionics systems eliminating the need for a navigator. The Air Force accepted the last KC-135 in 1965.

Evers’ tanker, in the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, “is pretty old, and made for the Cold War to refuel B-52 bombers,” he said. “But it’s a great airplane. I love flying it.”

Evers, co-pilot 1st Lt. Jeff Guttman and two boom operators spent six hours Tuesday refueling American and Japanese fighter aircraft in Cope North exercises. More than 48 fighter and cargo aircraft, including U.S. and Japanese airborne warning and control planes, are in Cope North, the longest-running bilateral exercise, which concludes Friday.

Aimed at honing Japanese and U.S. air operations, Cope differs from other such exercises. “We’re using English as a common language on our radio frequencies,” said Capt. Richelle Dowdell, Cope North spokeswoman. “Japanese pilots selected to take part in the exercise had to pass an English test.”

Another difference: Three-member Japanese and U.S. controller teams are flying aboard each other’s AWACS planes. “It allows us to practice direct and advisory control of fighter aircraft in the skies,” Dowdell said.

And for the second time, a U.S. tanker will refuel Japanese F-15 fighter aircraft in mid-air. It’s to prepare Japanese pilots for Cope Thunder, another air combat training exercise set for Alaska later this month.

During a preflight Japanese media briefing Wednesday, Cope North director Col. Don Weckhorst said eight JASDF pilots have joined aerial refueling training operations since April. Tensions with North Korea have not imbued this year’s exercise with more urgency, he said.

“Cope North is held under guidelines of the mutual defense treaty and is not country-specific,” Weckhorst said. “We don’t train against a specific country.”

The U.S.-Japan cross-training requirement began in earnest April 21 when, for the first time, a 909th tanker refueled JASDF fighter jets over the Pacific Ocean. Tuesday, over the Sea of Japan, four JASDF F-15 pilots again took turns topping off their tanks from Evers’ $56 million tanker as it flew at 360 miles per hour.

Pumping about 4,000 pounds of fuel into each fighter’s tanks took about three minutes under the guiding touch of Staff Sgt. Mike Webster, a 909th “boomer” who’s been refueling aircraft in this delicate manner for 12 years.

His secret? “Just doing it a lot,” said the Greenfield, Mass., native, adding the business gets really tricky in turbulence. “That happens frequently in the summertime because of thermal air currents,” he said. “But if I’m having a good day, and the pilots are good, we’ll get it done anyway.”

Also aboard is Chief Master Sgt. Greg Durand, only boomer of that rank in the Pacific Air Force. He’s been with the 909th for six of his 26 years in the Air Force. “We fly a very dynamic mission out here in the Pacific,” said Durand, who began his career as a mechanic working on the now-retired F-4 Phantom fighters.

Evers, a 1997 Air Force Academy graduate, said the hardest part of each mission is getting the aging tanker into the sky. “It’s a big elephant, and it takes a lot of coordination with many agencies to schedule refueling missions,” he said. “It flies great once it gets in the air.”

Fully loaded, the tanker’s 200,000 pounds of fuel would power a car for 38 years.

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