The Desert: Part Three

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. (Ret) Bill Gilliland
  • 190th Historian
Prior to the Dec. 20 activation order, almost all unit members in Jeddah were brought home for Christmas and to prepare for federalization. Colonel Charles "Mick" Baier, 1701st Strategic Air Refueling Wing (Provisional) commander and 190th member, and five others remained.

The unit was tasked to provide 10 tankers, all that were assigned. But since two were not available due to maintenance problems, two tankers from the 168th Air Refueling Group, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, were assigned to fill their slots. Two tankers belonging to Arizona were still at Forbes filling the ongoing alert commitment from which the Kansas unit had never been released.

Beginning Dec. 27, the first two jets left Forbes for the now familiar air base at Jeddah, with three more on Dec. 28. An ice storm delayed the next group, but on Dec. 30, the next ones launched. The last group left Jan. 2.

Two-hundred-sixty Kansas Coyotes (along with 12 Airmen from the 151st) were on their way to the Gulf to become part of the thousands of American servicemen and women who would be part of "Operation Desert Storm."

Desert Storm was different from Desert Shield in that tension and security were much tighter. And now that the Kansas Coyotes were federalized, there were no more rotations home. No one knew just when combat operations would begin or how long they would last, but everyone knew it was coming.

Manning increased to the point that billeting was in short supply, and the facilities became crowded. Gone were the trips for shopping in downtown Jeddah, the beaches, and all of the other things that made life in Jeddah somewhat tolerable during Desert Shield. Everyone was restricted to the base or compounds. But the Coyotes were up to the task at hand.

Operations and maintenance tempos took on new urgencies. At one point, the number of tankers assigned to the 1709th was 103 with more than 1,250 assigned personnel, making it the largest air refueling wing ever assembled. Aircraft came not only from the Guard, but also from the Air Force Reserve and active duty units. Aircraft included KC-135A models, KC-135E models, a few KC-135 R's, even a few KC-135Q models along
with KC-10's, all assigned to the refueling wing.

The fact that combat operations had not yet officially began didn't mean there wasn't much to keep the officers and Airmen of the wing busy as the maintenance records for the early part of January show. The number of sorties flown had not decreased to any great degree, and certainly the tankers had to be kept ready to go at a moment's notice. Planning for the coming war was picking up pace.

About the middle of January, things really began to pick up as the war was about to start. On Jan. 17, the Gulf War began at shortly after midnight. On that day, the 1709th flew 75 sorties for a total of 338.6 flying hours. But it would get busier in the days to come.

"As the air war continued, our flying schedule became less and less predictable, according to Lt. Col. Larry Dillon.

"Scud launches would create a flurry of activity, which would require KC-135 support," he said. "Sometimes they would need 60 or more sorties before sunrise, and the next day the surge would occur in the late afternoon or evening. As a result, our aircrews had no schedule to live by. One day they would sleep days and fly nights, the next day vice versa."

It would be like this for the next 38 days. It was a terrific pace to keep up. But as usual, the men and women that make up the United States Air Force, and especially the Kansas Air National Guard can take pride in the fact that they made it happen. It took the cooperation of thousands of individuals from many units to bring this off, all under the leadership of the Kansas Coyotes.

One incident that stands out is the outstanding airmanship by a Kansas Aircrew. Lieutenant Col. Kevin Sweeney (pilot), Capt. Jay Selanders (co-pilot), Capt. Greg Mermis (navigator), and Senior Master Sgt. Steve Stucky (boom operator) were the crew aboard a Grissom tanker, known as "Balls 13." Shortly after takeoff they encountered jet wash (the turbulence behind a large aircraft). This unexpectedly pitched them so violently from side-to-side, that somewhere in the process, both engines on the left side of the tanker were torn free, leaving the fully loaded tanker with very serious control problems. In fact, no one had ever encountered this problem outside of a simulator.

It took great skill and great cooperation between the crew to save the jet, and since there had never been a successful bailout from a KC-135, quite probably their lives in the process.

Just maintaining control of the tanker itself was a tremendous problem, putting maximum strain on the pilots, who had to physically manhandle the tanker to get it to fly. The fuel had to be dumped, a course back to base plotted, and most significantly, gear to be lowered. To accomplish this, Sgt. Stucky had to manually pump the gear down. And with that accomplished, the big tanker landed with no further damage. Great Flying! The crewmembers would each earn a Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions that day.