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Pumping gas in the sky

Scott AFB, Ill. -- "Our mission is to provide air refueling to anyone, anytime, anywhere," said Air Force Maj. Mike O'Koniewski of Edwardsville, deputy chief of scheduling, 108th Air Refueling Squadron, 126th Air Refueling Wing at Scott Air Force Base.

The Illinois Air National Guard's 126th Air Refueling Wing, the first air refueling wing in the Air National Guard, has a mission some may say is unique. The 126th performs three roles, its conventional mission, national emergency mission and state support mission using the KC-135 Stratotanker.

The conventional mission involves refueling aircraft from the Navy, Marines, Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. The Airmen also refuel aircraft from coalition forces while serving overseas or serving as part of Operation Noble Eagle, defending the United States. The wing also performs relief missions, like delivering supplies to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

"They asked for volunteers for the Katrina relief effort, so I volunteered. It was the highlight of my time here," said Senior Master Sgt. Shonn Latimer of Florissant, Mo., chief boom scheduler and sergeant in charge of scheduling for the 108th.

The 126th does not always perform real-world missions; sometimes its mission is simply training.

"Day-to-day training is the key so that when a mission comes along, it's like second nature for these guys," said O'Koniewski.

The 126th must negotiate with the Federal Aviation Administration to use specific air spaces called tracks for training. They must also negotiate with receiver units so Airmen can work on every aspect of refueling aircraft in mid-air. The wing typically runs four training flights a day, which have to be set up weeks in advance.

"Most of the training missions aren't major offloads, but small amounts of fuel so that the Airmen can get the full picture from hooking up, to contact, to offloading fuel, also called passing gas," said O'Koniewski.

The 126th may sometimes be asked to refuel aircraft mid-mission; sometimes cutting a training session short, but Latimer said this provided great experience for the boom operators and pilots.

Deployments come on a four-to-six month cycle for the Illinois Air National Guard unit, but they share that time with two other units; one from the Tennessee National Guard and one from the Pennsylvania National Guard. The unit is expected to be deployed again in 2012 and the commanders of each squadron will meet to decide who is the lead unit during the next deployment.

The 126th can be deployed as a solid unit, with all the support forces it contains, like civil engineers, security forces and logistical personnel, or it can deploy only pilots, boom operators and planes, or only support forces known as Expeditionary Combat Support.

In 2003, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the wing deployed to the Azores off the coast of Portugal. It flew missions to provide fuel to aircraft carrying servicemembers and supplies to Iraq. It also was deployed to Qatar in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, refueling aircraft providing close air support to troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

"Refueling A-10's in Afghanistan at 16,000 feet when the mountain caps are 10,000 feet is a little scary. Insurgents could just pop out and take pot shots at you," said Latimer.

The 126th has a versatile mission that consists of more than refueling aircraft.

"Our civil engineers deployed to Kuwait, installing plumbing, building schools and any other type of construction to help the locals," said Air Force Col. Jeff Jacobson of Edwardsville, Vice Wing Commander, 126th Air Refueling Wing. "Our security forces went on multiple deployments to Iraq, mostly guarding air bases while their commander was stationed in Baghdad. I think they got a lot of satisfaction for performing a task they don't normally get to do."

The 126th consists of approximately 300 full-time Illinois National Guard Airmen and approximately 600 traditional Airmen. The unit also has a sister active-duty Air Force Air Refueling Squadron attached to it. The 126th has operational control over the active-duty unit, but administratively the unit falls under a unit from the active-duty Air Force. There are only three other National Guard Refueling Wings with active-duty unit's attached to them.

"The Airmen all mesh together," said Jacobsen. "They are embedded with our people to where you can't tell them apart.

The 126th recently celebrated its 60th anniversary in October 2010.
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