BRISBANE, Australia — Nineteen thousand feet above the emerald waters of the Coral Sea, the U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber slides up behind the KC-10 Extender tanker and joins it in flying in a left-hand racetrack pattern off the coast of Queensland. Delicately positioning the nose of the sleek bomber, almost within touching distance off the tanker’s tail, the boom operator of the KC-10 maneuvers the cylindrical boom into the open refueling receptacle in the nose of the B-1 using a set of controls in his station at the rear of the tanker.
It is an extremely delicate aerial ballet conducted at a few hundred miles per hour in occasionally bumpy conditions, although the crew makes it look surprisingly easy. Within minutes of making contact, the B-1 takes on 110,000 pounds of fuel and slides off to the left of the tanker with another bomber taking over its place at the boom.
The tanker and bombers are taking part in Exercise Talisman Sabre, a biennial joint U.S.-Australian exercise designed to improve the combat readiness and interoperability of both militaries in conducting combined task force operations. This year’s exercise sees 33,000 personnel from the U.S and Australia taking part, along with smaller contingents from New Zealand, Canada and Japan.
The tankers of the USAF's Air Mobility Command, or AMC, have played a pivotal role at the exercise, with a pair of KC-10s and 70 personnel of the 60th Air Mobility Wing from Travis Air Force Base, California, currently deployed to Brisbane International Airport in Queensland since early July.
While operating from Brisbane, the KC-10s have mainly provided refueling support to U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Air Force Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers taking part in the exercise, although they have also supported long-range bomber missions spanning the Pacific, such as the mission witnessed by Defense News on July 18.
AMC's tankers have also supported the Ultimate Reach portion of Talisman Saber, which saw five C-17 Globemasters of the USAF and Royal Australian Air Force ferry 300 U.S. Army and Canadian paratroopers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, to Shoalwater Bay in Australia, where the majority of Talisman Saber is being held.
To execute Ultimate Reach, the C-17s were first refueled by KC-135 Stratotankers operating from Eielson AFB, Alaska. As they continued over the Pacific, one KC-10 from Travis AFB and two from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, were forward deployed to Wake Island, a small atoll in the western Pacific Ocean. They joined a fourth Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst KC-10 on its way from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, to meet the C-17s mid-flight and refuel each aircraft in quick succession.
"This is the bread and butter of what we do in the KC-10 world," said Lt. Col. Stew Welch, 9th Air Refuelling Squadron commander and the Ultimate Reach tanker mission commander. "We're practicing mobility, air refueling and interoperability. This is practice for how we go to war."
Major Joseph Caruso of the 60th AMW, who is also the deputy detachment commander of the KC-10s deployed to Brisbane, also told Defense News that the Brisbane detachment had managed to maintain 100 percent mission availability so far at the exercise, with the wing's maintainers working 24-hour shifts to keep the pair of aircraft flying up to twice a day on missions that can last up to eight hours.