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Master Sgt. Steve (Opie) Flax, a KC-135 boom operator, explains to a Japanese journalist how aircraft hook up to the refueling boom of a KC-135 tanker.
Master Sgt. Steve (Opie) Flax, a KC-135 boom operator, explains to a Japanese journalist how aircraft hook up to the refueling boom of a KC-135 tanker. (Carlos Bongioanni / S&S)
Master Sgt. Steve (Opie) Flax, a KC-135 boom operator, explains to a Japanese journalist how aircraft hook up to the refueling boom of a KC-135 tanker.
Master Sgt. Steve (Opie) Flax, a KC-135 boom operator, explains to a Japanese journalist how aircraft hook up to the refueling boom of a KC-135 tanker. (Carlos Bongioanni / S&S)
Inside a KC-135 cockpit, Lt. Col. Kyle Garland explains how avionics upgrades provide greater safety for pilots.
Inside a KC-135 cockpit, Lt. Col. Kyle Garland explains how avionics upgrades provide greater safety for pilots. (Carlos Bongioanni / S&S)
Japan Air Self-Defense Force spokesman Capt. Kazutoshi Ohmura explains that refueling operations will extend the time but not the distance JASDEF planes fly.
Japan Air Self-Defense Force spokesman Capt. Kazutoshi Ohmura explains that refueling operations will extend the time but not the distance JASDEF planes fly. (Carlos Bongioanni / S&S)

KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — With animated gestures, Master Sgt. Steve Flax demonstrated the intricacies of aerial gas-and-go maneuvers.

Flying one hand above the other, Flax imitated an F-15 traveling 350 mph at 25,000 feet, lining up 30 feet beneath a KC-135. The mission: Hook up to the tanker’s extended boom, which pumps almost 900 gallons of fuel per minute.

The boom operator, from Kadena’s 909th Air Refueling Squadron, was giving Japanese reporters a tour of a parked KC-135.

“I was the first KC-135 boom operator ever to refuel Japanese F-15s” in flight, Flax said. He took part in a history-making flight April 21 — the day the U.S. military began training Japanese F-15 pilots in the art of aerial refueling.

“It was my honor,” he said.

The two-week training marks the Japanese Self-Defense Force’s first entry into the air-refueling business. By Friday, eight Japanese pilots were to have completed two daytime and two nighttime sorties to become certified in air refueling, said Capt. Kazutoshi Ohmura, Japan Air Self-Defense Force spokesman.

“This is our first step to train our pilots to prepare for the first air refueler Japan will ever have,” he said.

Earlier this year, Japan’s parliamentary Diet approved buying four refueling aircraft to enter Japan’s inventory between 2007 and 2010, he said.

Japan’s post-World War II constitution forbids a standing military; armed forces are allowed only for defensive purposes.

But the air refueling may be seen as an example of Japan easing its self-imposed military restrictions, said Rodger Baker, an analyst for Stratfor, an independent global intelligence firm.

He said the United States has been encouraging Japan to change its constitution to allow taking a bigger role in maintaining regional peace and stability.

For years, U.S. tankers have refueled aircraft from NATO-member countries and other Asian partners such as Singapore and Thailand. Japan, however, long has shied from the practice, Baker said. Changing that stance would increase the range of the Japan Self-Defense Force — a concern, he said, to China and North and South Korea, all victims of World War II Japanese aggression.

Air refueling, Ohmura said, would allow eight-hour sorties, not the current three- to four-hour flight limits. He maintained, however, that the new capability is not primarily intended to extend the Japanese military’s reach.

“Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented posture remains unchanged,” Ohmura said. “Air refuelers will enable aircraft to remain in the air for longer hours, upgrading our patrolling and monitoring capability within Japan’s airspace. It is our mission in peacetime as well as emergency situations to defend the airspace of our homeland.”

He acknowledged, though, that Japanese pilots would fly 3,350 miles to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, in June to take part for the first time in the exercise Cope Thunder.“We will use every possible opportunity to train our pilots to establish Japan’s air refueling system,” he said.

A few years ago, Baker noted, Tokyo refused to join aerial defense exercises with the United States in Alaska, because refueling its aircraft during the flight would have shown long-range offensive capabilities.

While Tokyo can make the justification that aerial refueling is purely a defensive issue, so China can argue that its nuclear weapons are purely defensive and North Korea can say its medium- and long-range missiles are defensive in nature.

Thus far, Ohmura noted, the training has gone “smoothly.”

The program mirrors the refueling training required of pilots at Tyndall Force Air Base, Fla., said Lt. Col. John Bird, operations director, 605th Air Operations Squadron, Yokota Air Base.

The training can be nerve-racking for instructors, especially during moonless nights, he said: “The first night, it was a black night. You’re flying off formation lights — it’s like you’re living in a vacuum. You’re trying your best not to hit another airplane.”

Flax, the boom operator, said the Japanese pilots “did very well” keeping their aircraft aligned as he pumped more than 16,000 pounds of fuel into their jets the first day of training.

“A couple of guys got a little close,” he said, “but nothing to make my hair stand up.”

— Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.

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