According to the U.S. Air Force, this is the longest flight in the history of the Air Mobility Command.
A few days ago, on May 5 and 6, 2022, a KC-46A Pegasus tanker of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing performed a record-setting 24.2-hour flight to and from McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, in what the Air Force considers the longest duration flight in the Air Mobility Command’s history. This flight is considered a crucial test of the capabilities of the command’s newest aerial refueling platform, as it represents a key factor of the U.S. Air Force global reach.
The unprecedented flight was extensively planned, especially for the aspects regarding the safety of the flight. The Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool, a software that develops an optimal inflight schedule for the pilots, was implemented for this long endurance mission to mitigate the effects of the fatigue on the aircrew by planning the shifts for each crewmember.
The aircrew consisted of six pilots, three boom operators, a photojournalist, and a physician assistant. Two pilot teams rotated on and off four-hour shifts, while a backup pilot team, ready to step in as needed, focused on gathering data and taking extensive notes. The rotating shifts ensured adequate time for rest and the safety of the mission.
A physician assistant flew on the KC-46 to closely monitor the physical and mental well-being of the aircrew throughout the flight. The Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, a detailed questionnaire on the crew members current fatigue levels, was administered to the crew in conjunction with the Psychomotor Vigilance Task test, a test developed by NASA that monitors fatigue levels by measuring cognitive function in comparison to a preflight baseline.
“In flight medicine, our goal is to preserve not only the health and safety of the aircrew, but also to preserve the safety of the missions those aircrew perform,” said Maj. Cory Henderson, 349th Air Refueling Squadron aeromedical physician assistant. “For this mission, we’ve tried to do that from the start of planning and now through the execution phase.”
During the 24 hours in flight, the KC-46 performed dry contacts (with no fuel transfer) with another KC-46, refueled four Marine F-35s, and was then refueled by another KC-46. The flight route took the tanker along both of the U.S. international borders as well as along a majority of both of the coasts before ultimately landing back at McConnell AFB, traveling over 9,000 miles, and completing the longest duration flight in AMC history.
The data collected from this flight will be used to determine the feasibility, limitations, potential risks as well as unique benefits of the KC-46 for long-duration flights which could help the US Air Force increase its global reach, especially now that near-peer countries like China are shifting the focus of the US military to the Pacific Ocean.
“This 24-hour sortie is a critical step in the operational evolution of tankers, and the role the KC-46 plays in that,” said Col. Nate Vogel, 22nd Air Refueling Wing commander. “This sortie helps mobility forces identify how best to operate on long-duration sorties from human, to machine, to mission aspects. Long-duration flights are inherently full of risk, and conducting this operation now allows us to identify those risks, and then build and apply mitigations in a more controlled environment. The Joint Force, our allies, and our partners rely on our capability to project combat power globally…we need to be ready to execute anytime, anywhere. This 24-hour sortie is a huge step in realizing that vision.”
Interestingly, as pointed out by RC-135 aircraft commander and national security historian Robert Hopkins, the farthest non-stop unrefueled mission in AMC history dates back to 30 years ago, when a KC-135R flew for +10K miles from Kadena to McGuire.
1,000 miles shorter than KC-135A 56-3601 in 1958.
Farthest non-stop unrefueled range in AMC history was KC-135R 58-0001 on 19 Dec 92 of 10,151nm Kadena to McGuire in 17 hrs 31 mins.
— Robert Hopkins (@CobraBall3) May 9, 2022