The 16th Special Operations Wing deployed two AC-130U Spooky gunships nonstop Wednesday from Hurlburt Field to Taegu Air Base, South Korea.
Air crews from the 4th Special Operations Squadron together with maintenance crews from the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit are participating in Foal Eagle 1997, an annual Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise held throughout South Korea.
As of Thursday afternoon, the two gunships had completed 30 hours of continuous flight and were scheduled to complete their final aerial refueling later in the evening. The aircraft were expected to arrive at Taegu AB at about 10 p.m. Central Standard Time having been aloft for 38 hours straight, said Lt. Col. Bob Hudson, 4th SOS commander.
"This mission will demonstrate a worldwide nonstop deployment capability," said Hudson. "This shows how AFSOC can contribute to global reach by projecting combat power worldwide. In the expeditionary Air Force, we must be capable of deploying quickly with AFSOC air power."
The flight requires a total of seven refuelings from tankers based in locations from Kansas to Okinawa. It uses 14 tanker aircraft and crews from Air Mobility Command, the Air National Guard and Pacific Air Forces.
"The mission is a premier example of planning, command and control, and teamwork between AFSOC and AMC displaying the mobility of our forces," said AFSOC's AMC tanker liaison officer, Lt. Col. Stu Pugh.
Late Thursday afternoon, the two gunships had completed six aerial refuelings and were on their scheduled timeline, said Maj. Mark Bradwick, a 4th SOS flight commander who was monitoring the refueling from the 16th SOW Command Post.
The 4th had crew members at the command post throughout the mission to relay messages as needed to the gunships and to various command elements.
Before the sixth aerial refueling at about 400 nautical miles northwest of Wake Island, AFSOC and AMC monitors were worried that the non-stop flight might have to be terminated.
The lead scheduled refueling tanker, a Kadena Air Base KC-135, had a bird strike shortly after its takeoff, but its crew elected to continue the mission. The tanker crew proceeded to complete both aerial refuelings for both gunships, passing more than 66,000 pounds of fuel or 10,000 gallons. The gunships were then back on track.
Luckily for the gunships, the lead tanker was able to press with the refueling, Bradwick said, because a second Kadena KC-135, just one-minute behind the lead tanker, had a ground abort due to the potential for further bird strikes.
"There was a moment there where we concerned the whole mission might be scrubbed," said Bradwick. "But thanks to the diligence of the lead tanker crew, our gunships were able to keep going without a hitch." Without the fuel, planners were looking at diverting the gunships to Wake Island, Bradwick said.
At the time the COMMANDO went to press, the next significant stage would be the seventh and final aerial refueling when Kadena KC-135s were scheduled to divert around Typhoon Ivan to rendezvous with the refueling track, about 900 miles east of Kadena.
"We'll be watching how that goes very closely," Bradwick said.
AMC's chief planner for the mission, Maj. Dave Dito, said the mission was a classic AMC-AFSOC team effort.
"Planners from AMC's Tanker Airlift Control Center have worked around the clock and made this mission a priority," said Dito. "We are troubleshooting the scheduled refuelings and are keeping a very close eye on the weather along the path of this AFSOC global mission."
The AC-130U crews will split their flying time and work in four-hour shifts the entire flight based on a recommendation by Capt. Mike Cantrell, 16th Medical Group aerospace physiologist. Crews were also briefed on proper diet and sleep cycles by Capt. (Dr.) Terri Nutt, 4th SOS flight surgeon.
Cantrell, Nutt and Tech. Sgt. Joe Montalvo, aerospace physiology technician, flew on the gunships to monitor physiological safety.
Foal Eagle is designed to test and train U.S. and South Korean forces in the joint defense of the peninsula.
The gunship crews will work closely with Tactical Air Control Parties and U.S. and Republic of Korea ground forces, concentrating on air base and rear area defense. The gunships will exercise close air support to friendly forces in contact with the enemy in rear areas or in the vicinity of air bases.
In addition to the gunships, a four-man team from the 6th SOS will also participate in the exercise. The team will liaison with host nation and U.S. forces in facilitating combined air operations.
As an aviation advisory unit, the 6th SOS works closely with foreign aviation units on how to employ and sustain their own aviation assets.
The exercise runs through Nov. 15. (AFSOC Public Affairs contributed to this article).