As anyone who is into Military Aviation knows, the Red Flag exercise is held several times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, just north of Las Vegas, NV. It is probably the most media-covered exercise each and every year.
At the last two Red Flag exercises in 2013, I was scheduled to fly with the U.S. Air Force in their KC-135 Tanker plane, but due to some major miscommunications, the mission failed, and it was two long trips back to San Diego from Las Vegas. Well the third time is the charm for me.
On February 10, I found myself back at the Nellis Air Force Base’s parking lot, getting into a van to go on base and get on a plane again. There were five of us: the editor from Combat Aircraft Magazine, Jamie Hunter; my new friend Ivan Voukadinov, who is one of the best Aviation photographers that I know; and two others. This year’s Red Flag flights would be a little different from others past. No longer was there a Red Flight, which covers the Aggressor’s fighters of the 57th Wing, both the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons, both stationed at Nellis AFB. Only Blue flights would host the media.
Ivan and I boarded our Boeing KC-135, while the others jumped on another. The crew of our plane consisted of pilot Captain Alex Duke, co-pilot by Robbi Bethancourt, and boom operator Airman Ryan Kemp. All are attached to the 92nd Air Refueling Wing out of Fairchild AFB, Washington.
We settled into our seats after the safety briefing, and soon were in the air and climbing high into the sunny blue skies replete with huge billowy white clouds. We headed north and were over Southern Utah I believe when the first of the fighters started to show up for refueling.
In three hours, we refueled fighters from:
• The 1st Fighter Wing, 27th Fighter Squadron, F-22As, from Langley AFB, Virginia.
• The 20th Fighter Wing, 55th Fighter Squadron, F-16CMs, from Shaw AFB, South Carolina
• The 140th Fighter Wing, 120th Fighter Squadron, F-16C, from Buckley AFB, Colorado.
This was my first air-to-air with modern military aircraft, and what a blast it was. Lucky for Ivan and myself, our windows were clean and free from the hydraulic oil that sometimes forms a thin sheet on the windows making it difficult to photograph anything. I shot through both side windows of the RC-135, and then down though the windows in the tail of the plane where the boom operator is located while refueling is taking place.
After landing, I drove back to San Diego. I was just so happy that the five-hour drive felt like only a few. I want to thank the U.S. Air Force, the Base PAOs, and the crew of our tanker flight for some of the best moments of my life.