ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England: A group of Airmen with the 100th Air Refueling Wing traveled to Tampere, Finland, May 2 to participate in a week-long exercise with Navy and Finnish Air Force F-18 Hornet pilots.
The Airmen helped teach the Finnish pilots how to refuel in-air from a KC-135 Stratotanker.
The exercise marks the first time United States Air Forces in Europe has deployed a tanker team to Finland for an air-to-air refueling operation. The Finnish Air Force has been flying F-18s since the mid-1990s, but air-to-air refueling is a fairly new concept to the country’s Hornet pilots.
According to the Finnish Air Force’s 21st Fighter Squadron, some of the unit’s pilots have refueled other aircraft in air, but the majority of them are inexperienced with the procedure.
“This provides an extension of our forces,” said the squadron’s operations officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to government policies. “This will allow us to be in the sky longer.”
The captain said the training helps the squadron, and the service as a whole, meet a government requirement to be able to deploy outside Finland to support NATO forces. Although Finland is not a member of NATO, it is a part of the organization’s Partnership of Peace program, which USAFE also supports.
“This opens our eyes to a much wider operating area,” said the captain.
One of the primary missions of the 100th ARW is providing air refueling support to the United States’ European allies, said Capt. Aaron Torczynski, KC-135 aircraft commander. The 100th ARW is the sole refueling unit for the European theater, supporting NATO members and broadening the range of air assets flying around the globe.
Everyone involved with the training was enthusiastic and eager to learn and the tanker crew was especially proud to participate in this historical mission, Captain Torczynski said.
“Everyone here is working seamlessly as a team, because we all know the significance of this mission,” he said. “There is nothing but absolute professionalism out here from everyone involved.”
Captain Torczynski said the Finns have been supportive on all aspects of the mission, from airborne operations to assisting Air Force maintainers with pre- and post-flight duties.
“The aircrews and pilots have given us fantastic training opportunities,” Captain Torczynski said. “While the small group of maintainers we brought here has worked tirelessly to ensure we’re ready to fly each day.”
The Air Force crew arrived in Finland a week after a pair of Navy F-18 instructor pilots began teaching the Finns the fundamentals of air-to-air refueling. While the Finnish pilots fly the same type of aircraft, the similarities between how the countries’ aviators operate them are sparse.
“It’s the same airframe, but there are a lot of differences,” said Navy Lt. Chris Williams of Strike Fighter Squadron 125. “It’s very interesting to see how people do different things with the same equipment.”
Each of the 16 Finnish pilots who were trained required a minimum of three flights to become qualified for air-to-air refueling. The first flight took place with an instructor in a two-seat F-18D model and the last two in a single-seat F-18C.
Each pilot aimed to have six solid connections, or “contacts,” with the refueling receptacle. While 18 contacts are needed to be fully qualified, each pilot’s qualification is based on feedback from the instructors and is ultimately decided by the squadron commander.
Once qualified, the pilots will assist in the instruction of the rest of Finland’s F-18 pilots.
Still, the Finnish pilots weren’t the only ones who received training from the exercise. Since the Air Force doesn’t fly any fixed-wing aircraft that refuel with the probe and drogue system, boom operators in the back of the KC-135 gained valuable experience from the training, Captain Torczynski said.
“Any time these guys get to step outside the norm and hone their skills on something they don’t see every day is a great benefit for the Air Force,” he said.
There are no plans for the Air Force to return to Finland for this type of mission anytime soon. The plan is to have newly qualified Finnish Air Force pilots take over the training.
“This training not only allows Finland to reach out and assist other nations, but it helps build strong partnerships between the United States and our European allies,” Captain Torczynski said.