That time a KC-135 Crew saved an F-16 Pilot from ejecting over ISIS Territory


By Dario Leone
Jan 30 2017
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“The KC-135 was the linchpin of the fight, without fuel, fighters are inoperable”

In 1990, KC-135 Stratotankers answered a new call for help during Operation Desert Shield, which marked the beginning of continuous U.S. Air Force (USAF) contingencies for the next 25 years.

Even though combat operations had not yet officially began the tankers had to be kept ready to go at a moment’s notice.

In fact planning for the coming war was picking up pace.

About the middle of Jan., things really began to pick up as the war was about to start.

On Jan. 17, 1991 Operation Desert Storm began at shortly after midnight.

“Scud launches would create a flurry of activity, which would require KC-135 support,” said Lt. Col. Larry Dillon at the time KC-135 crewmember with 190th Air Refueling Wing (ARW). “Sometimes they would need 60 or more sorties before sunrise, and the next day the surge would occur in the late afternoon or evening. As a result, our aircrews had no schedule to live by. One day they would sleep days and fly nights, the next day vice versa.”

It would be like this for the next 38 days. It was a terrific pace to keep up.

During the war Lieutenant Col. Kevin Sweeney (pilot), Capt. Jay Selanders (co-pilot), Capt. Greg Mermis (navigator), and Senior Master Sgt. Steve Stucky (boom operator) were a KC-135 crew, known as “Balls 13.” Shortly after takeoff they encountered jet wash (the turbulence behind a large aircraft). This unexpectedly pitched them so violently from side-to-side, that somewhere in the process, both engines on the left side of the tanker were torn free, leaving the fully loaded tanker with very serious control problems. In fact, no one had ever encountered this problem outside of a simulator.

It took great skill and great cooperation between the crew to save the jet, and since there had never been a successful bailout from a KC-135, quite probably their lives in the process.

Just maintaining control of the tanker itself was a tremendous problem, putting maximum strain on the pilots, who had to physically manhandle the tanker to get it to fly. The fuel had to be dumped, a course back to base plotted, and most significantly, gear to be lowered. To accomplish this, Sgt. Stucky had to manually pump the gear down. And with that accomplished, the big tanker landed with no further damage. The crewmembers would each earn a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for their actions that day.

Stephen Yavornitzki, former KC-135 boom operator during the time of the conflict, remembered the tankers initially being used to transport cargo, but the mission soon required hours of aerial refueling support as well.

“The KC-135 was the linchpin of the fight,” said Yavornitzki. “Without fuel, fighters are inoperable.”

Aerial refueling missions typically lasted about three hours for the boom operator and the rest of his team, during which the aircrew worked to keep aircraft such as the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-111 Aardvark in the air.

“We [refueled] them both pre and post-fight,” he said. “Once they would go and drop their ordinance, they would come back up, get their fuel and head back out to the fight.”

The USAF aircraft successfully destroyed key enemy radars, command centers, air defenses and various air fields throughout the region.

Although these operations were not a direct result of the tankers, the KC-135s were busy keeping other aircraft in the air and enabling them to complete the mission.

“The KC-135 was the workhorse, the backbone, of the fight,” said Yavornitzki.

According to Air Mobility Command (AMC), over the course of the operation, tankers completed more than 4,900 sorties in 19,700 flying hours. Their crews off-loaded more than 28.2 million gallons of fuel to 14,588 receivers.

F-16C Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft of the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., are refueled by KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during the second day of Operation Desert Storm.

Source: 60 YEARS IN THE AIR: KC-135 supports Gulf War contingencies by Senior Airman Tara Fadenrecht, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs and U.S. Air Force; Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson and Senior Airman Kia Atkins / U.S. Air Force; Tech. Sgt. Perry Heimer / Department of Defense

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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  1. Mike Little says:

    I hope somebody has corrected the “never been a successful bailout from a KC-135” comment. Although tossed around a lot, it’s not true. I know of at least one successful bailout, from an article in “The Navigator” magazine many years ago. Four guys parachuted safely from a KC-135 in August, 1969, after the Instructor Pilot (IP) carelessly let the aircraft get too low on fuel during a routine training sortie. (Granted, the rest of the crew should have been more forceful about pointing this out.) While they were enroute to K.I. Sawyer AFB in Michigan after picking up on this little boo-boo, the Boom Operator announced that he was bailing out when the first engine quit from fuel exhaustion. One of the engines promptly flamed out so, true to his word, he pulled down the “chin-up bar” and dropped down the chute, followed by everyone else in the crew except the IP. I guess the IP figured that he had better land the jet or die in the attempt. He came close – he ended up deadsticking it in just short of the runway (thank goodness for control cables!) and so managed to (barely) recover the aircraft. The rest of the crew spent in night in the Michigan wilderness and were picked up the next morning. The writer was the navigator, who was one of the jumpers and commented that the bailout went just as advertised.
    Mike Little
    Former Tanker Toad

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