OAHU, HAWAII — Residents of the Comox Valley are familiar with various military aircraft passing overhead and perhaps wonder what roles they play in Canada’s air defence or rescue capability.
Recently I had the opportunity to observe one aspect of their role. I was permitted to fly on one of the CC 130 Hercules tankers out of Winnipeg Squadron 435, used to refuel other aircraft while in flight, as part of the biannual RIMPAC Exercise 2012 in Hawaii.
Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) is the world’s largest international maritime exercise, designed to prepare military forces to work together in missions ranging from providing humanitarian aid to full combat operations. RIMPAC began in 1971 as an annual exercise and since 1974 has been scheduled every other year.
The endurance of the exercise demonstrates the value of bringing international forces together to train. This year, approximately 25,000 personnel from 22 nations participated.
The exercise is scheduled and co-ordinated by the U.S. Navy Third Fleet based in Pearl Harbour and this year Canadian Officers held three senior leadership positions, a testament to the high regard in which Canadian military personnel are held.
The Royal Canadian Air Force contingency consisted of personnel and equipment from seven squadrons in five provinces— Squadron 407 Comox, Squadrons 429 and 437 out of Trenton, Ont., Squadron 405 from Greenwood, N.S., Squadron 425 out of Bagotville, Que., 435 Squadron from Winnipeg and 443 Squadron from Victoria. Personnel from other squadrons across Canada participated as well through different divisions.
The aircraft in which I flew was a fixed-wing turboprop commonly used in a wide range of missions including troop transport, tactical airlift, search and rescue, air-to-air refuelling, and aircrew training. It is capable of STOL (short takeoffs and landing) on unprepared runways and consequently can respond to emergencies on almost any terrain and under the most challenging weather conditions. The belly of the aircraft holds a huge gas tank that, in combination with the basic wing tanks, is capable of holding 37,000 kilograms or 82,000 pounds of fuel and has pods on the wings which hold the refueling mechanism.
The Hercules can transfer from 450 to 900 litres of fuel per minute and refuels the CF-18 Hornet in less than five minutes.
The receiver aircraft flies in formation 1,000 feet below the tanker and then slowly rises to connect to the extended basket, which houses the connecting mechanism. Locked together, the planes fly until the desired fuel amount has been transferred and then the receiver disconnects.
The tanker can fuel two aircraft at the same time and when more than two receivers need fuel, they are stacked behind the tanker awaiting their turn.
On a clear day with slight winds the skill involved is substantial. One can only imagine what is required when there is a little turbulence and the basket is anything but stationary. These aircraft are within feet of each other, one an elephant, the others gazelles, better yet a whale and porpoises, for those of us who are altitudinally challenged.
Our mission was to be on location at a specific time, for a specific period of time, fuel two aircraft from an American carrier, and act as backup fuel source for the remainder of specified time on location.
The crew arrived approximately two hours prior to departure. Assignments are checked, fuel is loaded, fuelling area confirmed, route to the fuelling area determined, and the condition of aircraft confirmed.
We head for the tarmac. A different set of the pre-flight checks and a passenger safety talk which we are all familiar with, for my benefit, and we are ready to go. All four engines are started in sequence from right to left. We are go for the flight.
Hickham Airfield is a combined International Airport and an active air force base. The hosting of RIMPAC means an additional 200 aircraft flying twice daily.
Climbing slowly, the island of Oahu on our left side, the plane banks right and we head toward our specified fueling zone. Permission is requested for a more direct route than initially planned, it is granted, the changes are calculated and a new heading taken.
When we arrive on station, the crew sets up to maintain a large rectangular flight pattern. Indicating to control that we are on station, we now wait for our receivers.
Pilots talk to control about the receivers in the area. There is no one out there. A call is made to track the progress of the Hornets we are scheduled to refuel. No luck.
We ask for other receivers. Again, no luck. As our shift on station nears its end, we are concluding this exercise will be a no-show. Unexpectedly now, the Hornets come on the radio. They were delayed on takeoff and have been reassigned to the south. They will not need our gas.
We head home, all a little disappointed that I did not get to witness their raison d’être.
On ride home, I observed the cohesiveness, camaraderie, mutual respect and inter-dependence of the crew that enables them to work effectively to achieve assigned goals.
Another successful flight, analyzed in debrief to improve an already great performance.