ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England: From a spectator’s point of view, a Coronet mission may seem simple; a group of tankers flies with a group of fighters across the ocean, ensuring the smaller aircraft have enough fuel to get home.
Beyond that first glance, however, the “air bridge” is a complicated, critical mission which takes precise planning and coordination to complete. It’s also a mission the 100th Air Refueling Wing members perform several times a week.
The term Coronet refers specifically to a movement of fighter aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Castellanos, the 351st Air Refueling Squadron director of operations. While heavy aircraft are refueled during their flights between continents, Coronets are specialized missions designed to let fighters traverse long distances safely.
Fighters move for a variety of reasons, the colonel said. Planes must be rotated in an out of the operational theaters to avoid overuse, meet maintenance requirements and, in some cases, stay with the units to which they’re assigned.
While the intent is essentially the same as any other air refueling flight, allow aircraft to take on more gas without having to land, the procedure for a Coronet is different.
On a standard refueling sortie, a tanker will enter an orbit in an area of sky set aside for them. Fighters scheduled to refuel with the tanker know where it is and go to them, Colonel Castellanos said.
With a Coronet, the airspace designated for refueling moves with the group of aircraft and takes more coordination to avoid mishaps. Planes must be at precise coordinates and altitudes at the exact time scheduled for the mission to be a success.
In a standard air refueling mission, a receiver may take off, meet up with the tanker for fuel, and then leave for their mission. Coronet fighters must top off several times during the flight.
In the event a fighter must leave the tanker and land, they have to have enough fuel to get to a predetermined divert base. Maintenance issues, mission requirements and weather can affect which bases are available, so precise timing is required to ensure the fighters have the correct amount of fuel at certain points in the flight.
Usually, tankers from the 100th ARW will take fighters to a certain point and hand them over to another tanker to complete the journey. Depending on mission requirements, the KC-135 Stratotanker crew may stop somewhere overnight or return to Royal Air Force Mildenhall. On a recent Coronet during which KC-135 crews “dragged” F-22s across the Atlantic, the crew stopped overnight in Iceland to refuel and meet crew rest requirements.
While home, tanker crews based here have a unique role – they are “deployed in place,” Colonel Castellanos said.
“When these Airmen go up to fly, they aren’t just training or practicing for a deployment,” he said. “They’re doing their actual mission, and they do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Despite the simple outward appearance of the air bridge, the crucial Coronet mission is an intensely precise cooperative effort, ensuring the fuel gets to the fighters no matter how far they need to go.