Airmen from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing completed a 24.2-hour flight on a KC-46A Pegasus May 5-6, to and from McConnell Air Force Base. The KC-46 is Air Mobility Command’s newest aerial refuelling platform, and now after completing the 24-hour flight, holds AMC’s record for the longest duration flight in its history.
The flight was for more than just bragging rights and getting in the history books, this was a crucial test of the capabilities of aerial refuelling, a key factor of the United States Air Force’s global reach. This flight took several weeks of planning, requiring collaboration from AMC, Boeing and various squadrons around the 22nd ARW.
In the weeks leading up to the flight, the planning teams had to remain flexible, balancing current operational needs, local extreme weather and logistical challenges that arose from the unprecedented nature of this flight. Safety measures were at the forefront of the flight. The physical and mental well-being of the aircrew was closely monitored by an on-board physician assistant.
The Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, a detailed questionnaire on the crew members' current fatigue levels, was administered to the crew throughout the flight in conjunction with the Psychomotor Vigilance Task test, a test developed by NASA that monitors fatigue levels by measuring cognitive function in comparison to a preflight baseline. Additionally, the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool, a software that develops an optimal inflight schedule for the pilots, was implemented for this endurance mission to mitigate the effects of fatigue.
“In-flight medicine, our goal is to preserve not only the health and safety of the aircrew but also to preserve the safety of the missions those aircrews perform,” said Maj. Cory Henderson, 349th Air Refuelling Squadron aero-medical physician assistant. “For this mission, we’ve tried to do that from the start of planning and now through the execution phase.”
The aircrew consisted of six pilots, three boom operators, a photojournalist, and a physician assistant. Two pilot teams rotated on and off for 4-hour shifts. A backup pilot team, ready to step in as needed, focused on gathering data and taking extensive notes. The rotating shifts ensured adequate time for rest and the safety of the mission.
During the 24 hours in flight, the McConnell AFB KC-46 performed dry contacts with another McConnell AFB KC-46, refuelled four Marine F-35s, and was refuelled by another McConnell AFB KC-46. The flight flew along both of the U.S. international borders as well as along a majority of both of the coasts before ultimately landing back at McConnell AFB, travelling over 9,000 miles, and completing the longest duration flight in AMC history.
The data collected from this will be used to determine the feasibility, limitations, potential risks as well as unique benefits of the KC-46 for long-duration flights.
“This 24-hour sortie is a critical step in the operational evolution of tankers, and the role the KC-46 plays in that,” said Col. Nate Vogel, 22nd Air Refueling Wing commander. “This sortie helps mobility forces identify how best to operate on long-duration sorties from human to machine, to mission aspects. Long-duration flights are inherently full of risk, and conducting this operation now allows us to identify those risks, and then build and apply mitigations in a more controlled environment. The joint force, our allies, and our partners rely on our capability to project combat power globally ... we need to be ready to execute anytime, anywhere. This 24-hour sortie is a huge step in realizing that vision.”