Pittsburgh Air Wing Launches 10 Aircraft in 1 Day

Pa. Guard's 171st answers last-minute call to refuel nation's stealth bomber

By Shawn Monk

Published February 6, 2023

Read Time: 2 mins


Editor’s note: This story was initially published on Jan. 3, 2023 by the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs Office.

Ten KC-135 aircraft were launched in a single day by the 171st on Oct. 25, 2022, making it one of the busiest days for flying at the unit on record.

The 10 aircraft were supporting a wide variety of different missions all over the country and globally.

Typically, a day of flying at the 171st Air Refueling Wing would include the launch of four to six aircraft.

Of the 10 missions, four crews under the call sign Reach departed from Pittsburgh carrying over 100 Guardsmen and their equipment to Southeast Asia in support of Operation Enduring Sentinel.

The crew of Steel 51 provided immediate air refueling to a B-2 Stealth Bomber aircraft that was low on fuel. The crew was returning the tanker from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma after receiving regular maintenance when the call for immediate air refueling was received. The crew was airborne within minutes and prevented the stealth from needing to divert.

The crew with call sign Teddy provided aerial refueling to an E-8C aircraft assigned to the 116th Air Control Wing based in Georgia. The E-8C is an aircraft that operates the most advanced ground surveillance and battle management system in the world.

Supporting Operation Noble Defender was the crew with the call sign Gasman. Noble Defender is a series of operations that incorporates military assets from the United States, Canada, and other allied nations. It’s a North Aerospace Defense Command operation that demonstrates the capability to defend the United States and Canada.

The crews under call signs Steel 71, 72, and 73 conducted routine training missions. These missions involved refueling a C-17 aircraft from the 911th Airlift Wing, which shares the Pittsburgh International Airport airfield with the 171st; an EC-130J aircraft from the 193rd Special Operations Wing, based in Middletown, Pa.; and a C-17 from the 167th Airlift Wing based in West Virginia. These missions maintain the proficiency for both the tanker crew and the air crew receiving the fuel.

In addition to the aircraft that were launched, ground crews prepared a backup aircraft in case one had an issue that would prevent it from flying.

Launching an aircraft takes four to six of hours of maintenance between each mission. This is required to maintain the safety and reliability of the 65-year-old KC-135.

“The entire maintenance crew was on hand to make this happen,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Brennan, an aircraft maintenance supervisor with the 171st. “All specialists were on standby for each launch to address any maintenance issues that might come up.”

“We launched ten aircraft with a part-time staff, while maintaining 65-year-old aircraft, while having a particularly high mission success rate, while unexpectedly needing to refuel a B-2 bomber with zero notice,” said Lt. Col. Eric Schillo, Chief of Plans at the 171st.

The 171st Air Refueling Wing is an Air National Guard unit located at Pittsburgh International Airport. It distinguishes itself from other Air National Guard tanker units by being the only one with two flying squadrons. Each flying squadron at the 171st has eight KC-135 tankers assigned.

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