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Since it's the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion I suppose now is a good time to talk about my experience around that time.

While I still identify myself as a "bomber guy" I spent 13 years flying KC-135 tankers in the Air National Guard.

In the fall of 2002 I was serving as the Operations Officer for a detachment of KC-135s deployed to Incirlik Turkey. This was called "Operation Northern Watch" or ONW. Our job was to refuel the fighters patrolling the northern Iraq no-fly zone. Our counterparts patrolling the southern no-fly zone flew out of bases in one of the Gulf States (I think it was Qatar).

City of Adana Turkey.  The stone bridge was built by the Romans and is still used. The large mosque is actually fairly new.
I did a total of three Northern Watch deployments between 1997 and 2002.

The operation consisted of USAF F-15s and F-16s, USMC EA-6Bs plus RAF Tornados and Jaguars. Support aircraft were AWACS (airborne radar), Joint STARS (like an AWACS but looks at things on the ground) and of course our KC-135s. The Brits also had some of their own VC-10 tankers.

British Tornado Fighters on final approach. Pronounced 'tor-nay-do' not 'tor-nah-do'.
The black thing at the bottom is my windshield wiper.
That part of Turkey looks a lot like southern California and is hot, dry and dusty that time of year. The aircrews lived in dorms that weren't too bad except the air conditioning couldn't really keep up with the heat. If it was 100 degrees outside it was probably 90 degrees in the room. Rooms were limited, so sometimes people had to double up. The enlisted people were in a semi-permanent tent city. The air conditioning actually worked better in the tents. Power failures were pretty common. We had backup generators, but not enough to go around.

We stopped complaining when people starting showing up from bases in Afghanistan for rest and relaxation. Our "bad deal" was their "good deal".

We could get a pass from the Turkish authorities that allowed us to go off base. There was an area right outside the base we called "the alley". It consisted of bars, restaurants and shops that catered mostly to the Americans. Everything was incredibly cheap. We could eat a great meal and drink a couple beers for a few dollars.

Open air market in Adana
The area off base was heavily patrolled by Turkish military police so we weren't too worried about terrorism. Most of the terrorism in that part of Turkey was from Kurdish groups, who weren't really interested in Americans. You just didn't want to hang around Turkish government buildings in case the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) tried something.

I found the Turks, at least the ones I met, to be very warm and friendly people. They are also the most aggressive salespersons I have ever encountered (and I have a house full of rugs to prove it). If I ran a car dealership I'd hire ten of these guys and make a fortune.

These guys flagged me down from across the street and wanted their picture taken
Turkey is an archeologist's dream. Within 30 miles of the base there at least six ruins dating from the Crusades, the Byzantines and the Romans. When I had some free time I'd get some people together and go crawl over old rocks.

As Operations Officer I had the equivalent of a small apartment, plus a car. With those perks came a lot of work. I worked for the Detachment Commander (also from my Guard unit). My boss answered to a British navigator who he referred to as "That arrogant half-wing bastard" (an RAF navigator's badge has half a wing). He had to spent most of his time off at various meetings while I handled the nuts and bolts.

My job was to run the day to day flying operation plus plan for the re-deployment at the end of my six-week tour. Planning the re-deployment was like putting a puzzle together. We had to keep X number of tankers on hand to do the mission, but the Turks would only allow Y number of tankers in country at any given time for political reasons. Plus we only had so many parking spaces for big airplanes. We'd have a crew sitting in the cockpit, waiting for their replacement to radio that they were 100 miles out so that they could be cleared to go home.

F-15E Strike Eagle They're carrying both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance
If you're easily grossed out you might want to skip this next part.

My biggest problem in keeping the operation going was something we named "The SMA" (pronounced 'smah'). This stood for Screaming Monkey Ass. Imagine the worst case of diarrhea you've ever had - times ten. Some people got it so bad they had to be hospitalized. None of the usual stuff (Pepto, Immodium) would even slow it down. They'd have to put you on some strong antibiotics to cure it. I'm not sure they ever figured out what caused it. They actually had a team of doctors there studying it (yuck). Some people thought it was the Turkish food, but I got it twice after eating at the Officer's Club on base. On any given day I'd have two or three crew members sick with this stuff. I'd have to use my staff pilots as sick cover, which left that many less people to run the operation.

It was a "gentleman's operation" for the most part. They only patrolled the no-fly zones during daylight hours so we'd launch the first tankers early in the morning and have everybody back on the ground by early evening.

One time the Marines requested some air refueling practice on a weekend, when we didn't normally fly. I said "I want beer for my maintenance guys if I have to bring them in on a day off" and beer magically appeared over at the maintenance hangar. Sometimes it was fun being in charge.

Tanker with "chicks in tow" leaving contrail
The tanker orbits were over eastern Turkey, just north of the Iraqi border. We'd normally have five or six tankers going around in a big racetrack. We could refuel the USAF fighters or the Marine EA-6s, but not both on the same day. To refuel the Marines we'd have to stick a hose and drogue on the end of our boom (looks like a badminton shuttlecock). The Brits normally took care of their own, but if we had a drogue we could refuel them too.
EA-6B (Electronic Warfare Aircraft) I took this picture on an earlier deployment, hence the 1997 time stamp. We were flying one of Nebraska's planes that day.
What about the Iraqis? They were pretty pathetic at this point. Occasionally they would shoot at one of the planes patrolling the no-fly zone. The F-16s and F-15Es would then go in and bomb whatever shot at them.
KC-135 ahead of us refueling F-15s
The Iraqi Air Force was pretty much non-existent. They were so short of spare parts that they might have ten flyable aircraft on any given day. They might launch three or four training sorties a day but that was about it. If they were feeling really frisky they might send a MiG-25 up towards the no-fly zone at high speed. These were usually detected about the time they took off. The tankers would all run north as fast as they could go - you won't outrun him but he might run out of gas before he manages to chase you down. Meanwhile the F-15Cs would swarm after the MiG and chase him back across the line.
F-16s waiting to refuel
This apparently was the great threat to the United States that required us to launch an invasion, kill a whole bunch of people and spend a trillion dollars.

We could tell that something was in the works even in late summer of 2002. The operations tempo was higher than in previous deployments and it seemed like we were dropping bombs more often than before. I was worried that something might kick off before we deployed back home and we'd get stuck there for the duration.

Yes, they get that close when they're waiting for fuel. We always want to hear "nose is cold" which means the arming switch for the weapons is off.
I saw my share of stupidity. We would launch the tankers first. Then the fighters would head out to the patrol area. If the weather was too crappy for them to do their thing, they'd head back home. We would then have to dump tens of thousands of pounds of fuel to get down to landing weight. It seemed like a terrible waste, but it was "above my pay grade" as we used to say.

We were supposedly there to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq. This didn't stop the Turkish Air Force from using the same base to bomb the Kurds in northern Iraq. If we got word that the Turks were coming through we'd pull everyone out of the area so as not to look like we were supporting them. We did sometimes refuel Turkish F-16s, but only on practice missions.

I regret that I never took the RAF up on their offer of a ride in a VC-10 tanker. Sadly I was just too busy and couldn't really justify taking a whole day off to do it.

I also regret attempting to drink with the RAF. The only time in my life I've been literally staggering drunk. I think I crawled back to my room on my lips that night.

We were supposed to go back to Turkey for the Iraq invasion sometime in early 2003. The Turks put an end to that when they refused to let us use their bases for the invasion. They didn't feel particularly threatened by Iraq at that time and I tend to agree with them based on what I saw. They also didn't like the way we tried to strong-arm them into going along with us. They're a proud people and they want to be treated with respect.

The first time I went to Turkey I thought I'd signed on for a bad deal and ending up falling in love with the place. I'd like to go back someday, under better circumstances.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Wed Mar 20, 2013 at 10:38 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, Central Ohio Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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