TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, KYRGYZSTAN - When crew members of the 137th Air Refueling Wing, Oklahoma Air National Guard, stepped into their KC-135R Stratotanker for a recent mission and departed the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, they believed they had begun another typical day over Afghanistan.
But crew members soon found themselves acting as wingman to a smaller fighter jet in trouble.
Capt. Michael Thomson, a pilot acting as an observer during the mission, said, "As we prepared to support our last regularly scheduled fighter aircraft, we received a radio transmission from the lead aircraft apprising us of their current situation.
"The lead pilot explained they were engaged in a troops-in-contact scenario and ‘my wingman will be up for gas shortly,'" Thomson said. "The lead moved into position, received the needed fuel and returned to the battle space, then we waited for the other jet."
Minutes passed as the Stratotanker's crew waited.
Lt. Col. Aaron Wardlaw, aircraft commander, made several attempts to contact the wingman on the air refueling frequency. Then he saw the aircraft move around its 9 o'clock position and maneuver to the astern refueling position, and the crew heard, "visual, request astern" crackling, barely audible over the tanker's radio.
Knowing something wasn't right, boom operator Senior Master Sgt. Keith Werner isolated radio contact with the fighter jet's pilot.
"The only thing working on this jet is my engine," he reported.
"Not the reply you want to hear, at altitude, over hostile territory," said Airman 1st Class Frank Pappalardo, another boom operator assigned to observe.
The crew began a multitasking dance to gear up for emergency contingencies.
While taking on the initial fuel load, the stricken pilot told the crew he had engaged with troops on the ground and requested the boom operators look over his jet for battle damage.
The boom operators checked the fighter as the aircraft commander and co-pilot, Maj. Jody Griffin, also a member of the 137th ARW, teamed to ensure navigation airspace kept them out of bordering countries.
The team worked to support the fighter at a constant speed and altitude. Thomson used the satellite radio for weather reports for possible landing sites.
As the team worked in-flight emergency scenarios, the common theme remained, "He needs help — we're all he's got right now. We have to deliver," Wardlaw said.
The Stratotanker's crew guided the aircraft through maneuvers to reset the flight computers and allow the pilot to regain effective communications and navigational instruments.
"It's all about taking care of your own," Wardlaw said. "While we may operate different platforms, ultimately he's a fellow airman who needed our help on a bad day."
After hearing about the crew's actions, Maj. Gen. Myles Deering, adjutant general for Oklahoma, said, "This is yet another example of the high level of professionalism among members of the Oklahoma National Guard. Every member of this crew should be commended for their bravery and quick action which likely saved the life of a fellow American."