McConnell tankers expand Thunderbirds reach

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Abigail Klein
  • 931st Air Refueling Wing

On Feb.18, the familiar F-16 Fighting Falcons from the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Demonstration Squadron flew across the skyline of Daytona Beach, Fla., to a crowd of thousands.

Air Force Reservists from McConnell's 931st Air Refueling Wing. This was the team’s first public flyover of 2018, and the “Ambassadors in Blue’s” performance was made possible by the airpower and efforts of

To travel nationwide, the demonstration squadron's F-16s require multiple refuelings in order to make non-stop, long-distance flights.  Fortunately, the KC-135 Stratotanker serves as a flying gas station with the capability of quickly offloading thousands of gallons of fuel mid-flight, allowing receiving aircraft to continue flying instead of landing to refuel.

“When we fight, we rely on tankers to expand our operational reach so we can fly farther and fight longer,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, Thunderbirds team leader and commander.  “Similarly, when we transit to a show, we rely on the same air refueling teams to extend our reach so we can devote more time to recruiting, retaining and inspiring our audiences. It’s a team effort and we appreciate their support.”

For this trip, the Thunderbirds were traveling from their headquarters at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., to Daytona. A four-person aircrew from the 931 ARW refueled the team the day before. Refueling the Thunderbirds is not an unusual task for McConnell aircrews.  Both active duty and Reserve Airmen from McConnell regularly participate in air refueling flights with the team.

“McConnell performs more than 95 percent of the Thunderbirds air refuelings,” said Brad Beyer, 22nd Operations Support Squadron Long Range Scheduling and Air Space manager.  “Because we are centrally located it makes sense for us to perform them.”

Piloted by Capt. Andrew Hill, 924th Air Refueling Wing, and co-piloted by Lt. Col. Jonathan Flores, 18th Air Refueling Squadron, the crew flew thousands of feet over Mississippi as Senior Airman David Brink, 18 ARS boom operator, made more than 21 contacts with the six aircraft. 

Brink, the third-generation member of a family who has been flying KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft almost continuously since 1964, particularly enjoys refueling the Thunderbirds, mainly because of how responsive the F-16 is to air refueling.

“This was my second time refueling them,” said Brink. “Their F-16 is easier to refuel in general because they move a lot faster, and they are able to catch the boom quickly.”

All in all, the aircrew spent approximately an hour refueling the team, offloading 8,850 gallons of fuel during their five-hour flight to Daytona.

In addition to Daytona, the team is scheduled to perform more than 30 shows nationwide, including one here at McConnell, Sept. 8-9. The show, dubbed “Frontiers in Flight,” will be the first air show at McConnell in six years. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are the main guests, and more details are to come. 

To learn about upcoming acts, visit here or the official 22nd Air Refueling Wing website at here.