TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan -- Every day, the Air Force reports dozens of successful flights supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. Fighters, bombers and other combat aircraft provide overwatch for troops on the ground, protecting the war fighters and deterring the enemy.
Most of those flights are possible because of one thing and one thing only: gas. And millions of tons of it are off-loaded midair because of a certain aircraft: the KC-135.
"The mission of the KC-135 is to provide midair refueling," said Capt. Mark Nexon, 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 pilot. "We allow fighter and combat aircraft to extend their staying power over the fight, by giving them the gas they need while they are in the air."
Essentially, it's a force multiplier, he said. Because of these "tankers," the planes don't have to return to the ground for fuel but can stay in the air for an indefinite amount of time.
"We refuel any Air Force, Navy and NATO assets - basically any coalition aircraft that's in [the AOR]," said the captain, who is deployed here from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash. Supporting dozens of models from numerous countries at different altitudes and speeds is what he called the "most interesting part of the job."
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping our allies and our own forces bring the fight to the enemy," he said.
Senior Airman Mike Russell, a 22nd EARS boom operator also from Fairchild AFB, has the added satisfaction of having a family legacy of enlisted air crew. It's "all he ever wanted to do," he said, but controlling the boom - which feeds the gas to the aircraft below - can be tricky. Challenges include turbulence, low visibility, aircraft stability and working with receivers who speak a foreign language, he said.
"The first couple times, it's pretty scary; but you get used to it and you get more comfortable," Russell said. "It's challenging, and it can be ... a lot of responsibility for an airman or airman first class, but once you get confident, you feel you are making a big impact on the mission."
The KC-135 presence at the Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan is strategic.
"Our proximity to Afghanistan is really important because we are far closer than other bases in the Middle East," he said.
The KC-135 is going on 50 years old, but recent modifications, relatively advanced avionics, and powerful engines have given it staying power that will allow our forces to use it well into the future, Nexon said.
"It's versatile, particularly because it's fast for an [Air Mobility Command] asset," he said. In addition to air refueling, the KC-135 can carry a small number of passengers or cargo and it is capable of aero medical evacuation missions as well.
In a typical flight, they refuel several aircraft, and in the course of a deployment they'll off-load millions of pounds of fuel to hundreds of aircraft, supporting thousands of troops on the ground.
"Every flight has a measurable impact on the fight," Nexon said. "Without air refueling, fighter aircraft and combat aircraft have limited staying power."
"When the guy on the ground needs combat support and there's an F-16 up there but he needs gas... we're right there," Russell said. "We get right there, and we get them the gas."
In the end, it doesn't matter which crew provides the fuel to which aircraft, Nexon said. They are all trying to just make sure they've got a tanker over the fight on time and safely.
"When I see an [air power summary] that's been fueled by the Transit Center, I feel a sense of satisfaction knowing we've brought the fuel overhead to the warfighter and I know we've done it safely, correctly," he said.