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We Have Taken Part In An Arctic Challenge Mission Aboard A KC-135 Tanker

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Some images taken aboard QID22 (All images: Stewart Jack/TheAviationist unless otherwise stated)

We refueled Belgian F-16s, Italian and Dutch F-35s during Arctic Challenge 23, the premier Nordic large-force, live-fly field training exercise.

About 150 aircraft and approximately 2,700 coalition personnel from 13 nations are involved in ACE 23, the latest iteration of Arctic Challenge, an exercise series taking place throughout Finland, Norway and Swede until Jun. 9, 2023. The biennial drills were born in 2013 as an interoperability training exercise between Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and it has now expanded to incorporate nearly every Arctic nation and many NATO Allies and Partners.

The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy as well as the other NATO air arms routinely conduct operations in the High North alongside the Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian Air and Naval Forces, however, the size of ACE and the variety of assets that took part in the exercise make it remarkable because they prove a growing pivot to the strategic Arctic theather, the “battlefield” for an intensifying struggle between the U.S., NATO and Russia, for military as well as economic reasons (mostly related to energy extraction and maritime shipping activities).

For instance, this year, the Arctic Challenge saw two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers deployed to RAF Fairford for Bomber Task Force 23-3 join U.S. Air Force and Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter aircraft during Arctic Challenge Exercise 2023 in a counter-maritime mission involving the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) Carrier Strike Group and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8 with their F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-18 Growler jets, as well as P-8A Poseidon MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft), and Allied naval assets throughout the North Sea.

ACE 23 ORBAT (FinAF)

On Tuesday June 7, 2023, we got a chance to take part in an ACE 23 mission flying aboard KC-135R 60-0333, radio callsign QID 22,  from the 100th ARW from RAF Mildenhall. The aircrew of QID 22 included Maj. Jarrod J. Ebner, Capt. Pablo A. Frias, Capt. Shanon C. Teicher and SrA Daniel E. Crump (Boom Operator). For the lead pilot, Maj. Ebner, this was his penultimate flight in the KC-135R, after logging 6,000 hours flying over 24 years in the U.S. Air Force.

KC-135 60-0333 on the ground at RAF Mildenhall. Note the nose art.

The mission departed RAF Mildenhall at 10:00 AM and landed back at 16:40.

The KC-135 flew for 2 hours 45 minutes before tanking the first F-35s over Sweden where the refueling area was located. The tanker could be tracked online thanks to its Mode-S/ADS-B transponder.

QID 22 track (Image via Flightradar24.com)

The task of QID 22 was to refuel four Belgian Air Force F-16s, including the one sporting the Tiger painted scheme, four RNLAF (Royal Netherlands Air Force) F-35s and four ItAF (Italian Air Force) F-35s, all deployed to Orland Air Force Station, Norway, that is also the base of the RNoAF F-35s.

Our correspondent Stewart Jack took the photos and videos you can find in this post.

On the way to the refueling area.
Checking the route planning.

As experienced by Stewart in first person, it is not easy to take shots from the boom operator position, as there isn’t much room when lying next to the boom operator.

While somehow limited the view from the vantage point is not bad!

Unfortunately, the boom window was covered in a lot of fluid causing much of the refueling imagery to look soft and/or dirty. Moreover, for security reasons, media aboard the KC-135 were not allowed to take photographs of the 8x F-35s that refueled from QID 22.

Two of the receivers
On left echelon waiting for its turn to refuel.
Belgian Air Force F-16

Photos of the Italian and Dutch Lightnings taking part in the mission over Sweden were later released by the U.S. Air Force through the DVIDS (Defense Visual Information Distribution Service) – although the caption said the F-35s were Italian and Norwegian…

Three Italian F-35 Lightning II aircraft fly in formation over Sweden during Arctic Challenge Exercise 2023, June 6, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Hetlage)
The crew of QID 22

A big thank you to the U.S. Air Force in Europe and Africa Command for inviting us to take part in this mission!

David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.





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