Six Fighters. One Tanker. The Atlantic Ocean. And a Near-Disaster
In 2010, I made a risky ocean-crossing with the Italian air force
While unpacking some boxes in early April 2017, I stumbled upon my Red Flag Alaska papers. Suddenly, I flashed back seven years to the exercise and an epic transatlantic flight involving six fuel-thirsty warplanes and just one aerial tanker.
That Red Flag Alaska war game took place in the summer of 2010. The Italian air force Tornado community took part in the exercise — the 6° Stormo from Ghedi air base, equipped with Tornado IDS attack aircraft, deployed to Alaska elements from the 102° Gruppo, the 154° Gruppo and the 156° Gruppo — my squadron — whereas the 50° Stormo from Piacenza air base deployed its 155° Gruppo equipped with the Tornado ECR, the electronic combat reconnaissance variant of the “Tonka.”
Red Flag Alaska is an intensive air-combat training exercise held at Eielson Air Force Base, 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Participants are organized into defensive “red” forces, offensive “blue” forces and “white” forces representing neutral elements — typically, the drill-control agencies.
In 2010 edition, up to 50 combat aircraft of all types deployed to Eielson AFB and around 40 — mainly red-air assets — operated from Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage.
Red Flag Alaska is exciting because it offers a huge high- and low-altitude Military Operation Area and provides a realistic operational combat scenario that includes several different threats.
A that time, along with being a Tornado pilot, I was also assigned to the Italian air force headquarters for a so-called “staff tour,” during which I worked in the development of the T-346A, the aircraft I eventually flew years later once I became an instructor pilot.
Our plan was to arrive in Alaska a week before Red Flag Alaska kicked off, in order to complete all the in-processing briefings, prepare mentally and have the possibility to fly at least one local-area orientation sortie inside the ranges to get familiar with the procedures, alternates and recovery points around Eielson.
Retro flight’s line up card. Via the author
Flying a formation of fighter bombers across the Pond — the Atlantic — is quite complex. It requires a lot of effort by a whole team who must plan the ferry flight, stopovers, refueling points, diplomatic clearances as well as other logistical details.
We needed three U.S. tankers — two KC-10s and a KC-135s — plus one Italian C-130 for search-and-rescue and one Italian 767 for logistics support.
A long and complex flight between Italy and Alaska has one basic requirement. All the aircraft must be filled with the amount of fuel required to either reach the next refueling point or to divert to the nearest alternate airfield, at all the stages of the trip.
As you may imagine, this is not an easy task. Not only do the known variables influence the planning but also many unpredictable events — weather conditions, air-traffic clearances, tanker or receiver issues, etc. — must be taken into proper consideration and, in some way, anticipated.
The type of formation required to undertake the long ferry flight usually includes one tanker with two hoses or baskets and six Tornadoes. The dual-hose configuration is necessary to shorten the air-to-air-refueling operations and offer a backup option in case one of the baskets becomes unavailable.
The entire trip is split into several legs, each consisting of around five hours of flight time and five air-to-air refueling points — but even this may change because of the winds.
In 2010, the Italian air force deployed to Alaska 12 Tornadoes in two waves of six aircraft each.
I was selected to bring one of the jets back at the end of exercise and fly the oceanic track. In other words, I had to pilot the Tornado from Bangor to Italy via Lajes in the Azores. Since the tankers didn’t have the dual-hose or -basket configuration, the plan was to split the formation into two flights of three Tornadoes, each supported by one tanker, and perform five refueling operations in around five hours of flight.
We would then land in Lajes, spend 36 hours there and then continue to our final destination, Ghedi, via another five-hour leg through the Strait of Gibraltar and four additional aerial refuelings.
Pretty much this was what we briefed with the tankers the day before the mission. The only problem was the weather on the departure day. The forecast highlighted two possible issues.
The first one was a very low ceiling preventing a “compound departure,” a sort of racetrack departure procedure whereby tanker and fighters rejoin shortly after takeoff over the airfield and then proceed together along the route.
This minimizes the time to rejoin the tanker. The tanker crew, after all, is responsible for navigation, airspace coordination, refueling sequence, time and fuel off-load.
The second issue was that solid clouds were reported up to 25,000 feet, which is above the best refueling altitude for the Tornado and well beyond the first refueling point.
In other words, with that kind of weather we would be forced to take off, look for the tanker during the climb to the cruise level — with the risk of not being able to get in visual contact with the refueler and therefore being forced to divert before reaching the “missing refueling point,” or MRP.
So the question was, should we continue with this plan or postpone the mission until the weather improves? Re-planning isn’t easy when a lot of people, different commands and supporting assets are all involved. Delaying the mission would also have a logistic impact, as lodging would have to be arranged for many military at different air bases.
Last but not least, a delay of one day in Bangor would have led to a delay of three days in the overall trip since the original take-off from Lajes was scheduled on Friday morning and Saturday and Sunday are no-fly days there, meaning that we would have to wait until Monday to depart from the Azores.
We eventually decided to wait until the departure day and check the actual weather before opting for a delay.
On the early morning of July 13, 2010, we met in the briefing room. The weather was exactly as forecast, but the good news was that the forecast for the next two hours reported the clouds moving westward. This gave us good chances of reaching Visual Meteorological Conditions before the MRP.
Therefore, the revised plan was to launch the tankers five minutes ahead of the Tornadoes so that the refuelers could hold at least 20 miles before the first MRP. In case of bad weather, the tankers could extend eastward, moving the holding pattern until good weather manifested or we were forced to divert, whichever came first.
In order to have the option to fly eastward as much as possible, we decided to use St. Johns as our alternate airfield.
This plan implied minimum spacing and a first, quick plug to get the gas required to increase the endurance as needed in order to then start a new refueling sequence. In such conditions, the crews need to be very precise and disciplined. Each aircraft is allowed to take just the minimum fuel needed to continue the flight and then make room to the other jets.
The wait-refuel-wait sequence is extremely important, as each member of the formation has always to have enough fuel to divert and reach the alternate, should the need arise. Moreover, the farther you meet the tanker and start the sequence, the more fuel you’ll need. But more fuel translates into a longer sequence, hence more gas is burned by the aircraft waiting for their turn to refuel.
In other words, it’s a matter of continuous calculations.
Mid track chart. Via the author
The day of the flight
It was 7:00 in the morning, local time, on July 13, 2010. I was the leader of three-ship formation, radio call sign “Retro 11,” and my tanker was a KC-10 with a single hose. We were finishing the briefing with the tanker crew and in 10 minutes we would be walking toward our assigned aircraft.
The squadron commander, call sign “MiG,” is the leader of the other three-ship formation “Retro 14,” whose tanker is a KC-135 with a single hose and a boom-to-drogue adapter, or BDA. The BDA is a stable system, easier to plug, but more difficult to maintain while refueling since it needs a particular “S” shape to open the refuel valves like you see in the picture below.
After 20 minutes, we were at the holding point ready for takeoff. The KC-135 got airborne as scheduled. Retro 14 followed five minutes later. Then it was the turn of my tanker, the KC-10, which got airborne two minutes after the first flight of Tonkas. And now it was my turn aboard Retro 11.
I performed the visual signals, released the brakes and departed.
Just 30 seconds after take-off, my number-three called, “Airborne! Visual two,” meaning that they had departed and had made visual contact with the preceding Tornado. I slowed down to 280 knots, remaining below the clouds to expedite the rejoin of my wingmen.
With my wingmen in close formation, I started a climb while turning inbound of the planned track. At 1,500 feet, I was in the clouds. My two wingmen — “Cloude” on the left wing and “Blondie” on my right wing — were absolutely awesome as they kept a perfect close formation.
We were approaching 15,000 feet and my navigator “Giaspa” was doing an outstanding job with the radar. Although we had been inside solid clouds since our first turn, he had a positive radar contact with the tanker 15 miles in front of us. Having the tanker on our radar scope kept us quite calm. We could focus on rejoining with the tanker and preventing any delays
At 17,000 feet, I accelerated a little bit to get closer to the tanker and minimize the rejoin time. Giaspa continued to give me updates about the tanker he kept tracking on the radar and now we were extremely happy with pretty solid situational awareness. “Let’s hope the weather moves in accordance with the forecast and clears our refueling point,” I said to Giaspa over the intercom.
In the mean time I contacted MiG to get some more information from them, as they were flying five or six minutes ahead of us. “Gonzo, we are flying in the clouds at [19,000 feet],” he responded.
We were currently over C2, the waypoint where aerial refueling should have started, and we were in the clouds. We needed to calculate how long we could fly before reaching the divert point and, at the same time, we covered all the “what if” options, trying to update a kind of dynamic plan. Waypoint C3 was approaching.
In my mind the option to divert started to become more and more realistic. We were flying over waypoint C3 and were still inside the clouds.
This first segment of our long trip seemed to be endless. We steered toward C4, our go/no-go point.
A Tornado refuels from a KC-135 equipped with the BDA. U.S. Air Force photo
About five minutes later, MiG called me on the radio. “Gonzo, we are … at [19,000 feet] at 25 [miles] from the MRP and we are in sight of the tanker.”
I smiled under my oxygen mask, acknowledged the call on the radio and asked my tanker to climb to 19,000 feet. In less than a minute, we were above the clouds, in clear skies with our tanker in sight in front of us. I immediately re-checked the fuel and called for correct refuel sequence. I’d be number one, followed by Claude then Blondie.
The tanker crew felt our intensity and acted accordingly. The refuelers were extremely cooperative and facilitated the rejoin procedure, clearing me directly to the pre-contact position.
I started to refuel. After a few minutes, I moved to the observation position, allowing my wingman to plug into the tanker’s hose.
Everything was going smoothly. We could also take more fuel than we had initially planned. We took 800 kilograms each instead of 600 kilograms. The plan was to take 2,000 kilograms each in the next sequence and then fill the tanks again to regain the original refueling schedule.
Meanwhile, Retro 14 formation was on my right, around three miles in a line abreast, 1,000 feet above me. They were about to refuel in sequence from the KC-135 in accordance with their fuel state — “Lillo” then MiG and, lastly, “Mastro.”
Lillo approached the hose and in a second flat plugged the probe into the basket. Right when everything seemed to be okay, disaster struck. A minute after the successful contact, he started a small pilot-induced oscillation that, in a few seconds, became bigger and bigger until it broke the only basket available on the KC-135!
The basket disconnected from the hose, missed Lillo’s air intake by few feet and fell down into the ocean.
The broken tanker headed to St. Johns while MiG and the rest of his formation joined us behind the only remaining tanker able to offload some gas — our KC-10.
In a moment, the situation had dramatically changed. We had been three ships with one tanker and now we were six ships and one tanker. This meant less fuel to take, less time to refuel, more plugs and a very long sequence.
MiG took the lead and defined the new refueling sequence in accordance with the formation’s fuel state. Lillo had taken 300 kilograms before breaking the basket, while MiG and Mastro had not had a chance to take on gas. They needed to refuel ASAP and then give way to Lillo, who needed a refill.
In a matter of a few minutes the three Tornadoes completed the refueling and, a bit more relaxed, we decided to continue the transatlantic crossing with a new sequence involving six ships. I was the first and Lillo would be the last. But considering the queue behind the hose, we will not take 2,000 kilograms each, as planned, but only 500 kilograms.
The new unplanned sequence seemed to be working well until, after the fourth rotation, the tanker radioed, “Retro 14, I have gas for six jets only for the next refuel point.”
This wasn’t a good news, because we were halfway from destination and we needed at least two more refuelings to reach Lajes.
According to the plan, a third tanker should have been coming our way from Moron, Spain. Our tanker said the new KC-10, callsign “Blue 61,” had departed ahead of the scheduled time and was currently heading westbound over the Atlantic. MiG asked our KC-10 to coordinate an expedited rendezvous with the new refueler that would allow us an additional plug.
We met Blue 61 after completing our last refueling with the first KC-10. The new tanker brought us to Lajes with two additional refuelings.
We eventually landed there on July 14, after seven hours of flight time and seven aerial refuelings!
Once on the ground we met the rest of the aircrews in the pilot lounge and started relaxing. “If we are here it is because of you and also because of the skill and cold blood of all pilots and navigators,” I said to MiG and Gigi.
A couple of hours after landing, six Pakistani F-16s, on their way to Nellis Air Force Base where they would take part in a Red Flag for the first time, performed a stopover in Lajes. We were not alone in the Azores.
The first leg from Bangor. Via the author
It was July 16. I was back in the cockpit, leading the same formation of Tornadoes to Italy. Once again MiG was the leader of the other section. This time the weather was good.
The last leg was uneventful. Everything went well and we arrived in Italy as planned.
What I remember of this second flight is the moment when I was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar. The scenery suddenly changed due to the influence of the Sahara Desert. Colors changed. From a deep blue start, the sky turned into yellow then orange and then into light red just over the Strait.
These colors were a unique sight and my feeling was like I was passing through a gate. It was indescribable.
In the end, the entire transfer was a unique, challenging experience. Thousands of words are still not enough to describe our emotions, moods, concerns and adrenaline. You really had to be inside the cockpit to fully understand what we lived up there. Still, I would do it again tomorrow.