RAF MILDENHALL, U.K.—The 15 KC-135s of the 100th Air Refueling Wing have popped up all over Europe in recent months, from the North Sea to the Adriatic, and from the skies over Poland and the Baltics to other parts of eastern Europe.
As the Air Force’s only permanently based tanker wing in Europe, that’s business as usual. But demand has picked up since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and U.S. and NATO air patrols ramped up over NATO’s eastern flank.
But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creating uncertainty and instability in the region—and greater numbers of U.S. and NATO aircraft patrolling the eastern flank of the alliance—the demand for aerial refueling has risen as well.
“What we do hasn’t changed: Providing a ready force at a strategic forward base, and essentially projecting air power through what we like to call unrivaled air refueling across Europe and Africa,” Col. Gene A. Jacobus, commander of the 100th ARW told Air Force Magazine. “The pace at which we’re doing it? Yeah, that has increased.”
Given the wing’s unique status in the region, the ops tempo “is kind of perpetually high,” said Tech. Sgt. Blake Soule, a KC-135 boom operator. But he said the wing is now flying “more sorties, longer sorties, … more on the weekends.”
Increased work can translate into increased job satisfaction, said Capt. Jori Ingersoll, a KC-135 pilot. “There’s increased responsibility, there’s increased risk, but there’s increased reward too—more experience across the force, and we do our best to give those days back. But there’s something to be said that we’re here to accept that responsibility of giving our weekends to the Air Force and what we’re supporting.”
With more refueling flights, Mildenhall’s KC-135s are getting tasked with fewer aeromedical evacuations and airlift operations.
“We have these young Airmen, young pilots getting that experience right off the bat, but it’s just normal for us, because we’re just ready,” Ingersoll said. “But it’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly either. There’s weekends where we are tired. When you talk about day-to-day ops, there’s no normal day for us, especially when we’re flying as much as we are.”
Perhaps years from now, these Airmen will look back at this operation as a historic moment in Europe and their own Air Force history.
“These are the good old days that we’re going to remember, this is the impact that we’re going to remember out of being based at Mildenhall,” Ingersoll said. “All of the cool high-priority stuff that we’ve been doing.”
Soule agreed. “It’s incredibly humbling and sobering to be able to do what we do,” he said. “To do stuff that affects NATO and the greater AOR and people’s lives.” It’s busy—but worth the effort.