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Tankers play pivotal role in Iraq war with air fuel in high demand

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN, in the eastern Mediterranean—"Tankers," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem keeps saying. His planes could do more. His pilots could do more. The Truman could do more, as could the carrier next door, the USS Theodore Roosevelt. If more is called for, he said, all he needs are more tankers—the planes that are midair gas stations for the jets.

With Iraq hundreds of miles from the eastern Mediterranean, the tankers occupy a pivotal role. The Truman can carry 3.3 million gallons of jet fuel, and supply ships can bring more even when the Truman is at sea. But the F-14 and F-18 fighters can't carry enough fuel to get from the carriers to northern Iraq, do their jobs and get back.

"There's an old naval aviation axiom that the only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire," Stufflebeem said. "So we're constantly in search of more gas."

They often get it from huge Air Force tanker jets that lumber over from undisclosed bases and hang out around the Turkey-Iraq border. There, they await their "customers," who sometimes create a traffic jam in the air as they wait to fill `er up.

Stufflebeem needs more tankers because early war planning had counted on Turkey to provide a key staging area. When the coalition could not win permission from Turkey to launch operations from its soil, the air campaign had to rely on more distant bases.

Help is on the way, because seven tanker planes are en route to the region.

Outwardly resembling 707 airliners, the KC-135 "Stratotanker" planes have a range of about 1,500 miles and can carry nearly 30,000 gallons, enough to fill 10 F-14s.

Officials love the image of what they suspect might turn out to be unprecedented cooperation among the services: Air Force tankers servicing Navy jets for bombing missions to support Army and Marine troops.

When Lt. Edward Chandler, 27, of Webbers Falls, Okla., described a recent mission, he used fuel stops as checkpoints for the action.

On a mission of roughly five hours, "It takes an hour and a half to get there, get your gas and be ready to go in country," he said. He spent about an hour over Iraq, coordinating with forces "on the deck" below, then came back out to fill up on gas again and went back in. On the way back, "You usually have enough gas so you can hurry. Get the jets back so the maintenance crews can start working on them again."

Weather is crucial to tanking operations. One day last week, dense clouds and turbulent winds prevented some planes from refueling in the air. They had to drop down to airfields in Turkey, which allows emergency use of bases, to get enough gas to get home.

"It was a heck of a challenge for the guys up there," Stufflebeem said.

The Truman has mini-tankers that are in the air during all flight operations.

They are the S-3B Vikings, $27 million planes that provide day or night surveillance, electronic countermeasures, search and rescue—and a one-stop gas station.

They take off from the carrier first in most operations, laden with more than 2,500 gallons of fuel. They climb to a predetermined altitude and circle. When, for example, an F-14 Tomcat leaves the carrier, just getting airborne consumes maybe 10 percent of its gas. So before heading east toward Iraq, the pilots zip up to a Viking to top off.

There, they make contact with pilots such as Lt. Cmdr. Chris Walker, 36, of Jacksonville, Fla.

Walker grew up in Springhouse, Pa., outside of Philadelphia. His father was a commercial pilot, and he taught his son to fly at tiny Wings Field in Blue Bell.

A business major at Penn State, Walker originally thought he might wind up on Wall Street. But as he interviewed for various jobs after college, he thought, "I don't know if I want to slow things down yet. It should be more exciting than this."

Midair refueling is like a high-speed, high-stakes version of a baton pass in a relay race.

The mini-tanker pilot sets a speed at about 280 mph, and the jet nuzzles up. The tanker pilot releases a hose with a basket at the end, shaped somewhat like a badminton birdie. The opening is about as big as a pizza.

The fighter pilot must now maneuver so that a rigid tube about the diameter of a drinking glass on the outside of the jet slides into the basket. It takes a steady hand on the controls. If turbulence makes either plane lurch violently enough—Wham! The basket is reinforced with metal, so it packs a punch.

"Imagine being at 28,000 feet, thunderstorms around you, you're getting bumped around pretty good," Stufflebeem said. "If you're on an airliner, you'd have probably spilled your cocktail by now."

But when they connect, out gush about 200 gallons of fuel per minute. Two minutes later, the jet backs off, and the pilot of the mini-tanker awaits the next customer.

The same thing happens when the jets come back to the carrier. Often, they've pushed their limits, so low on fuel they don't have enough to land safely, because they need enough to climb again in case they have to abort the landing. So they head for the Viking to take a gulp.

Sometimes, the Vikings do midair transfers between themselves. If one is due to land but still has fuel, it will offload every drop it doesn't need for landing into another Viking. That does two things: It keeps the fuel where the pilots need it—in the air—and it makes for an easier landing for the now-lighter Viking.

Walker said it would "be great if all the hot spots of the world were easy-to-get-to places."

But Iraq is not one of them.

"In order to get there, you've got to have gas," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+TANKERS

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ+REFUEL