USAF, RAF tankers fly two-ship formation in valuable training sorties
Several aircrews from the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force teamed up Aug. 16 - 17 to perform valuable training that may have been the first of its kind.

ROYAL AIR FORCE MILDENHALL, England -- Several aircrews from the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force teamed up Aug. 16 - 17 to perform valuable training that may have been the first of its kind.

An L-1011 TriStar from 216 Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, deployed to RAF Mildenhall, where it flew alongside a 100th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker in a unique training exercise deemed necessary from experiences in recent combat operations.

After the aircrews completed their preflight briefings together and took off in formation, the tankers flew out over the North Sea within a few miles of each other, and kept that distance throughout the aerial refueling procedures. Apart from the formation aspect, the flight was a routine training sortie, but the experience was worth more than just logged hours for the crews.

"We're building partnerships with our international allies," Capt. Mark Berthelotte, 351st Air Refueling Squadron, said.

After NATO operations in Libya in 2011, the need for allied nations to familiarize their air forces with air-refueling operations was identified, said Capt. Tyler Berge, 351st ARS. NATO air refueling procedures are published, but the formation gave the crews that participated practical experience with the operation.

The idea for the training was brought up at the 2012 European Tanker Symposium, which was hosted at RAF Mildenhall and included tanker crews from Belgium,  France,  Italy, the United Kingdom and theUnited States. The symposium included briefings and guided discussions about lessons learned from Libya, the future of European refueling and a familiarization ride in a KC-135 flight simulator.

Berge said no record of a formation flight comprised of U.S. Air Force and RAF tankers can be found, and although it can't be confirmed that it has never been done, the training is the first of its kind in recent history.

According to Berthelotte, during Operation Unified Protector, the name given to the 2011 NATO-led Libya operation, refueling sorties were taking up vast amounts of airspace, and through formation training the aircrews hope to identify ways to better use that space.

"The purpose of (the formation training) is, instead of using three tankers and taking up 9,000 feet, we could use three tankers and take up about half that amount of airspace," Berthelotte said. This will allow for more space to be used by other military aircraft, he said.

In addition to the airborne portion of the training, relocating the TriStar and its crews to RAF Mildenhall allowed 216 Squadron to experience working from an unfamiliar base, similar to what they experience on deployments.

"It provides us the opportunity to practice deploying to complete air-to-air refueling missions from somewhere different than our home base," said Squadron Leader Phil McConnell, 216 Squadron. "That's not something we get the chance to do very often. This essential training allows us to operate safely and effectively."

RAF Mildenhall is home to 100th ARW, the only U.S. Air Force air refueling wing in Europe, which flies the KC-135 Stratotanker. The L-1011 TriStar is the RAF's primary tanker. 

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