Osan airmen practice ‘hot pit refueling’

At Osan Air Base, South Korea, Senior Airman Dusty Suber uses hand-and-arm signals to guide an A-10 attack plane from a flow shelter where it has just been refueled with its engines running. Called "hot pitting," the refueling method when used in wartime helps get aircraft just back from a combat mission back into the skies again more quickly.


By FRANKLIN FISHER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 26, 2004

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — It’s a bright, chilly morning in South Korea and two F-15 fighters are roaring due east over Runway 2-7, tongues of grayish-yellow flame trailing from their afterburner nozzles, their jet noise booming over the flight line in a long, deep-throated rumble.

All day and all night from this U.S. airbase just 48 miles south of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, fighters and other combat aircraft have been taking off and landing on mock combat missions as part of a week-long combat readiness exercise.

The exercise is designed to help train the 51st Fighter Wing to play the Air Force part should there be a real war in Korea — sending warplanes up to strike enemy targets, then keeping them armed, fueled and flyable so they’re ready to hit the enemy yet again.

Part of keeping the pressure on the enemy is making sure fighters that return from one mission, or sortie, are ready quickly to launch another. One Air Force term for it is “turning a sortie.”

One method to aid quick turnaround is “hot pit refueling.” As a plane lands here after a sortie, it taxis into a “flow” — a big semi-circular shelter open at both ends. There, with the plane’s engines still running, a crew of airmen are waiting to hook a fuel line to the aircraft and fill it up, while also checking for signs of anything that might cause the pilot problems on his next launch.

Some airmen liken hot pitting to professional auto racing’s fast-paced pit stops.

“We’re gonna turn a sortie … the engine is still running … they put fuel on the jet, and then they send it off for the next sortie,” said Maj. Brad Tanehill, maintenance operations officer with the 51st Fighter Wing’s Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. The squadron is responsible for maintaining 26 F-16 fighters and 27 A-10 attack planes.

Not shutting off the engines saves turnaround time, said Capt. Dominick Martin, officer in charge of the 25th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, part of the 51st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

“If I have to shut the airplanes down, my folks have to do a through-flight inspection on them,” said Martin. “We end up saving about an hour per sortie … We can produce more sorties in a shorter amount of time.”

Senior Airman Dusty Surber was hot pit supervisor in Flow 19 on Tuesday, one of six flows being used to service the A-10 attack plane. He worked with four other airmen that day to turn A-10s as they taxied into the flow’s cement-floored, clamshell-white interior.

At seven minutes past noon, their next plane taxied up to the far end of the flow, then swung smartly right. Surber, the only airman wearing an orange safety vest over his green camouflaged uniform, marshaled the pilot in with hand-and-arm signals.

Other pit crewmen secured the plane’s wheels with yellow wooden chocks.

They hooked a black cable to the aircraft that allows them to talk to the pilot over microphones mounted in their black headsets. And they hooked a fuel line to a receptacle at the front of the A-10’s left wing and soon had the JP-8 aviation fuel flowing.

While it’s the pit crew that does the fueling and examines the aircraft from the outside, the pilot himself has plenty to watch too.

“Gotta be concerned with everything … safety … gas is not spilling back out of the pipes back where they hook the hose up … just making sure everything looks right and that the gas is flowing into the aircraft and not onto the concrete,” said Maj. Michael Schultz, an A-10 pilot and assistant operations officer with the wing’s 25th Fighter Squadron.

“We back those guys with, one, we’re checking that the aircraft is taking fuel correctly, by our gauges in the aircraft,” Schultz said.

“An efficient hot pit crew can cut your time — you can go anywhere from 20 minutes in a hot pit to down to 10 minutes,” said Schultz. “Provided you’ve got good pumps and a good crew, you can be out of there in 10 minutes. The efficiency of the hot pit crew are very important to me as I’m trying to get the maximum amount of sorties done for the day.”

This week’s exercise has helped hone their hot pit skills, said Surber.

“By … hot pitting in the exercise, you become more efficient and aware of your surroundings and you become more qualified at working in an atmosphere such as you would whenever you would go to war."

Senior Airman Scott Bradbury is an A-10 crew chief who also worked at hot pitting earlier this week. With so many warplanes coming and going, crews got good war-fighting training, he said.

“During the exercise it’s “definitely … a lot higher tempo,” said Bradbury. “The jets come in a lot quicker, more frequent, so the more we do it, the faster we do it, it allows us to be prepared for an actual wartime situation.

“And that’s the whole point. The whole idea of a hot pit is to be quick.”

During weeklong combat readiness exercise at Osan Air Base in South Korea, Senior Airman Dusty Surber heads back into a "flow" aircraft shelter after using hand-and-arm signals to guide this A-10 attack plane out of the shelter Tuesday.

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