Last minute call leads to unplanned refueling mission

RAF Mildenhall -- A late night call, a cancelled sortie and flexibility led an aircrew from the 351st Air Refueling Squadron here to help expedite the transport of more than a dozen severely injured troops from Iraq to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Feb. 7.

According to Capt. Brent Toth, 100th Operations Support Squadron scheduler, the refueling mission was far from the norm.

"We got a call around 2:30 a.m. asking if we could refuel a high-priority air-evacuation mission to the hospital at Andrews," Capt. Toth said. "Luckily we had a cancelled flight, and we had a crew available."

That crew consisted of Capt. Colin Henderson, co-pilot 1st Lt. John Cramer and boom operator Tech. Sgt. RaileR Cantrell. Captain Henderson was originally scheduled to fly his first mission as aircraft commander on a routine refueling mission over the Mediterranean Sea.

"We normally know 24 to 48 hours out when we're going to do a flight," he said. "When we showed up, our binder had all the information from the previous cancelled flight."

Captain Henderson said what they did have was the refueling route, the time of the rendezvous and the call sign of the receiver, a Mississippi Air National Guard 172nd Airlift Wing C-17 Globemaster III which left Iraq at about 1 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time.

The Guard's mission was unique as the majority of its C-17 flights fly into Landstuhl Regional Medical Facility in Germany.

"Our crews are able to make changes to meet the needs of the Air Force as the mission dictates," said Lt. Col. David Buck, a Mississippi Air National Guardsman spokesperson. "There was a lot of scrambling (the C-17 crew) had to do to make this mission happen."

The same can be said of the crew at Mildenhall.

"The maintainers and my crew worked unbelievably fast because we realized how critical the mission was," Captain Henderson said. "We basically planned it from scratch."

The KC-135 launched from RAF Mildenhall at 6:30 a.m. GMT and refueled the C-17 with more than 16,000 gallons of fuel above the England-Scotland border. Colonel Buck said the C-17 arrived in Maryland just before 3 p.m. GMT.

On the trip back to RAF Mildenhall, Captain Henderson's crew encountered inclimate weather that required them to circle the base before landing on a runway which had just been scraped by a snow plow.

Captain Henderson said the refueling mission saved the patients on the C-17 roughly three hours it would have taken the C-17 crew to land and refuel.

"We weren't the ones carrying them, but who knows? We might have saved them a few hours that made the difference between life and death," Captain Henderson said. "But then I thought to myself after we landed that I get to go home today while the guys in the back of that plane are fighting for their lives. It was sobering."