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SuffolkNews goes behind the scenes at RAF Mildenhall to find out more about life on base for military personnel





I wasn’t sure what to expect as I drove to RAF Mildenhall a few weeks ago. I was nervous, but I was looking forward to seeing what life was like for personnel and their family members on base.

Having never been on a US Air Force (USAF) base before, I did get a little lost. Instead of meeting my sponsor at the Visitors’ Centre (somehow I missed the signage), I trundled on through to the checkpoint and caused a minor traffic jam. After heading back to the Visitors’ Centre, I met my chaperone, got my pass and then we were away.

Once inside, I met Staff Sergeant Justin Elliott who has been in the USAF for 10 years, having always wanted to join from a young age.

Staff Sgt. Justin Elliott is a boom operator for 351st Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker at RAF Mildenhall. US Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt Jesenia Landaverde
Staff Sgt. Justin Elliott is a boom operator for 351st Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker at RAF Mildenhall. US Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt Jesenia Landaverde

“Since being in the ninth grade, I always wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“I figured, where’s a better place to be than the air force?

“I joined the military to get my degree first to become an officer and then a pilot, but I got this job first and fell in love with it. This is the only thing I’ve done since.”

SSgt.Justin Elliott wanted to join the air force from a young age. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
SSgt.Justin Elliott wanted to join the air force from a young age. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

The 28-year-old, originally from Arkansas, explained that personnel have two jobs – an office based job and a flying one.

“In my office job, I will give evaluations to people as they’re flying to make sure they’re up to standards and I’ll file paperwork and make sure everyone is qualified,” he said.

“For the flying portion, I am a boom operator, which is an air refuelling specialist – I fly and refuel fighters and bombers in the sky. We’re like a flying gas station.

“We help support all of Africa, Europe and our NATO and host nation partners as well.

SSgt Elliott gets an alert call in the morning. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
SSgt Elliott gets an alert call in the morning. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

“Sometimes I can be gone for a month or a week, whatever the mission dictates. We can travel to Greece, Spain, or Germany mostly.”

Training to be in the USAF varies from profession to profession. Recruits do basic training for two months, a fundamentals class which teaches aviation, a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course and water survival training for a month, and a four-month course for their particular aircraft.

In SSgt Elliott’s job, he uses a joystick to control the boom, a long metal extendable arm positioned at the rear of the aircraft, line it up with the aircraft’s receptacle and offload fuel.

SSgt Elliott uses a joystick to control the boom to refuel aircraft in the sky. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
SSgt Elliott uses a joystick to control the boom to refuel aircraft in the sky. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

“One of the biggest challenges is probably the weather. If it’s bumpy or choppy, that makes it hard. When in foreign nations, if they don’t speak English, that could be a big language barrier and it makes it a little bit harder.

“But the biggest challenge is training. We’re like the only ones who have air refuelling systems like this. Other countries don’t get to practise as much as us so we’re usually their first time refuelling in two or three years.”

Training for recruits differs from profession to profession. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
Training for recruits differs from profession to profession. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
The base features a gym, as well as other recreational facilities. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
The base features a gym, as well as other recreational facilities. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

On a typical day, SSgt Elliott will be alerted, which is a call, an hour before he needs to be at work. Once at work, he and his team will mission plan, which will include the weather for the route, before checking the jet over to ensure everything is in working order. They will then take off and fly to wherever they need to go for that particular mission.

When SSgt Elliot is not working, he likes to kick back at the various entertainment facilities on the base.

“Base life is good,” he said.

“It gives us a chance to decompress after work. We have a lot of amenities, like the base theatre – we can watch up-to-date movies from America here on base at a decent price. We have a gas station, different restaurants, the gym and the biggest thing is the bowling alley.”

SSgt Elliott particularly enjoys the bowling ally and movie theatre. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
SSgt Elliott particularly enjoys the bowling ally and movie theatre. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

There is a Child Development Centre (CDC) on base which provides child care services for personnel who are working during the day, and RAF Mildenhall is part of a tri-base community with RAF Lakenheath and RAF Feltwell which means that various amenities, like elementary, middle and high schools, can be shared.

There is also a library, post office, grocery shops, dormitories for junior airmen, and parks. Much like how schools are shared between Lakenheath and Mildenhall, base exchange or BX stores are also shared – RAF Mildenhall has homeware, garden and sports BX shops, while RAF Lakenheath has electronic and clothing BX stores.

RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath share Base Exchange or BX stores where personnel and their families can buy garden, homeware and electrical goods. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde
RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath share Base Exchange or BX stores where personnel and their families can buy garden, homeware and electrical goods. US Air Force Photo by SSgt Jesenia Landaverde

For SSgt Elliott, working in the UK was always where he wanted to be and he said he would stay for a decade if he could.

“I love it here. This is the place I’ve always wanted to go – my dream base. It’s the perfect place where you’re overseas but you still know the language, so that’s awesome. I love the culture.

“One of my favourite foods in the UK is a Sunday roast. I thought it was all talk, but y’all brought it. Sunday roasts are it.”

SSgt Elliott is currently studying for a degree on his days off. He hopes to one day go down the pilot route.

To residents who live in Mildenhall and surrounding areas, SSgt Elliott would like people to know that the military community is just that, a community.

“We’re a family, we help each other out and we’re always here to support.

“The wing always holds events for us to help decompress and we’re always here for one another when we need to be.”

100TH Air Refueling Wing's mission

  • RAF Mildenhall was launched on February 1, 1992. Its job is to support air refuelling needs to all of Europe and Africa.
  • It is the only permanent refuelling base in Europe so is considered to be a first responder.
  • Personnel can also carry out missions to help people who have been hurt or in danger.
  • The bigger picture for the base is to help fighter jets extend their flying hours and capabilities during their missions, be that observation missions or supporting allies.
  • RAF Mildenhall also helps to refuel British aircraft.