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SuffolkNews reporter Ash Jones joins RAF Mildenhall refuelling mission with the 100th Air Refuelling Wing of the US Air Force





What happens when you take someone who has never been on an aeroplane before and send them on a military refuelling mission?

RAF Mildenhall has a storied history. It opened in 1934, and served as a base for the Royal Air Force until it came into use solely by the US Air Force in 1959.

The base is currently home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing (100ARW) – often referred to as the Bloody Hundredth – and the only KC-135 unit in Europe and Africa.

These behemoths of an aeroplane can carry up to 200,000 lbs (or 90 tonnes) of fuel, and could, if needed, fly for up to 24 hours without stopping, with a maximum speed of 600 miles per hour.

The plane we were boarding had been in use for nearly 64 years, and over the course of its life, had clocked just short of 30,000 air hours.

Airmen also assured us it cost about $64m (£51.4m).

The flight crew for our refuelling mission, with the KC-135 behind us. Picture: Ash Jones
The flight crew for our refuelling mission, with the KC-135 behind us. Picture: Ash Jones
Needless to say I was eager to get going
Needless to say I was eager to get going

Leaving my home in Ipswich at about 5.30am, I arrived at RAF Mildenhall for 6.45am. My car was searched and we ended up waiting around for a few hours while certain hitches – including the team getting the time of the flight wrong – were dealt with.

The base invited members of the media to witness a refuelling training mission and gave us a chance to get up close and personal with some legendary fighter jets.

The mission was simple: we were to take a KC-135 and use it to refuel F-35s.

An F-35 on the tanker's right wing. Picture: Ash Jones
An F-35 on the tanker's right wing. Picture: Ash Jones
This is what the inside of a KC-135 looks like. Picture: Ash Jones
This is what the inside of a KC-135 looks like. Picture: Ash Jones

According to the 100ARW, they try to get out and fly as often as they can to get as much training as possible.

They cover all of Europe, and the situation in Ukraine has increased demand significantly and made their jobs more vital, they revealed.

There are issues tankers or jets being refuelled can run into. Rudders can lock up, cables can snap, and booms may not go into the receiver.

There are also risks – collisions, damage, and concerns over human error with things like fatigue.

I got a front-row seat from the cockpit to watch the take-off. Picture: Ash Jones
I got a front-row seat from the cockpit to watch the take-off. Picture: Ash Jones
The mission lasted about two hours. Picture: Ash Jones
The mission lasted about two hours. Picture: Ash Jones

However, I was incredibly excited to get started, and the idea of my first real flight being in a military jet was too good to resist.

Some of the people joining me had waited years to fly on a KC-135 and witness an F-35 in action.

We were scheduled to take off at 10.30am. Fifteen minutes later, I was given a front-row seat in the cockpit as the plane departed for the Norfolk coast.

The boom is controlled to give fuel to the jets. Picture: Ash Jones
The boom is controlled to give fuel to the jets. Picture: Ash Jones
A jet being refuelled. Picture: Ash Jones
A jet being refuelled. Picture: Ash Jones

Our destination was the North Sea, and it took us about an hour to get there. KC-135s can reach altitudes of about 50,000ft. We only went to about 18,000ft.

Sadly, it was also a pretty dreary day, so we were unable to look upon the Norfolk countryside as we flew.

By about 11.30am, we had arrived at our destination.

It was an amazing experience. Picture: Ash Jones
It was an amazing experience. Picture: Ash Jones
The jets assumed formation so we could take photos. Picture: Ash Jones
The jets assumed formation so we could take photos. Picture: Ash Jones

The pilots were willing to put on a bit of a show for us, and went in formation on the tanker's wings so we could gain some snaps.

These photos and the video I took speak for themselves. An amazing experience and one I'd heartily recommend if you're ever given the chance.

First Lieutenant Nick Lopez, the flight's co-pilot, said he had been at RAF Mildenhall for less than a year.

Co-pilot Lt Nick Lopez. Picture: Ash Jones
Co-pilot Lt Nick Lopez. Picture: Ash Jones

He joined the service four years ago after leaving the US Air Force Academy.

Being in the air force was a family tradition, he told me, with both his father and grandfather also serving.

Lt Lopez added: "The KC-135 was designed by Boeing for the purpose of refuelling.

Our KC-135. Picture: Ash Jones
Our KC-135. Picture: Ash Jones

"Today, there were about six jets we refuelled and we transferred about 35,000 lbs of fuel between them.

"This is our mission, everyday. We go out and provide support to our allies in NATO, or American partners and offer global support so they can carry on with their missions.

"On a busy day, 13 flights can go out. On a slow day, four. But we obviously like to go out as much as possible to get as much training in as we can."