Report: Awesome KC-135 Tanker Crew Saves Helpless Fighter Pilot

A news release from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing spiraled into infamy as it highlighted how a KC-135 Stratotanker crew “saved” an F-16 pilot:

“The lead F-16 came up first and then had a pressure disconnect after about 500 pounds of fuel. We were expecting to offload about 2,500 pounds.”

After the F-16 disconnected a second time, the pilot went through his checklists and told the crew he had a fuel system emergency. Over 80 percent of his total fuel capability was trapped and unusable.

Since the F-16 could take some gas, he stayed with the tanker and flew back to his base along side the tanker, taking gas every 15 minutes or so.

Then he landed. And the tanker went back to his orbit. And life went on.

There are a variety of things that could go wrong to make a fighter experience “trapped fuel” or a similar fuel system malfunction. The standard thing to do when that happens is land — or, if unable to land, find a tanker, and then top-off with the tanker every few minutes on the way home.  That’s what they did.

The crew’s squadron commander put an interesting spin on it, though: 

Lt. Col. Eric Hallberg, 384th Air Refueling Squadron commander [said] “Knowing the risks to their own safety, they put the life of the F-16 pilot first…”

With all due respect, there were no risks to the KC-135’s safety, at least not any more so than flying over Dallas or Peoria. By contrast, tankers did “cross the line” during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom to meet up with fighters that were low on fuel and unable to reach the refueling track. In those cases, the Iraqis were still believed to have a viable air defense system, so there was a threat to the otherwise defenseless KC-135. In this case, not so much.

If you asked the F-16 pilot, he’d probably tell you he was appreciative that the tanker had listened to him when he told them to fly to his home base and drop him off.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Both the fighter pilot and his tanker were probably “quick-thinking,” and the integration of their professional decision-making and flight conduct “saved” the F-16 and its pilot. The tanker crew is to be commended for their adaptability, and the fighter pilot — assuming he didn’t bring the malfunction on himself, which sometimes happens — likewise should be commended.

Still, a near-viral story on the national news that a tanker crew “saves” a fighter pilot in a front-page headlining “daring rescue”? There should be no end of grief given.


Photo: Senior Airman Jonathan Nigl, 384th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator, Maj. Robert Bradley and Capt. Nathanial Beer, 384th ARS pilots, pose for a photo in front of their aircraft.

kc135saveAlso at the Air Force Times and