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Aerial-refueling team awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM (USTCNS) --- While conducting air-refueling operations above Iraq on April 7, a four-person crew took their KC-135 further into harm's way to help airmen in trouble.

They were recognized for their actions by Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Combined Forces Air Component commander, who flew in to Camp Oasis on April 11 to deliver four Distinguished Flying Crosses and to thank the crew for their bravery and heroism.

The crew deserves recognition "not only (for) getting the fuel into Iraq, but ... also (for) being very adaptable and very flexible," Moseley said.

According to the crew - all from the 916th Air Refueling Squadron deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. - that evening started out normally until they arrived on the scene of a combat search and rescue mission, or CSAR, north of Baghdad.

A call came in from a controller on an E-3 Sentry AWACS: "Hey, we're working a CSAR," explained Capt. Tricia Paulsen-Howe, the navigator aboard the KC-135, which was using the call sign Python 33. "There was an F-15E that went down - two people."

"There were fellow airmen on the ground trying to avoid capture," said Capt. Nathan Howard, the pilot of Python 33. "It's a (combined) support effort: trying to keep the enemy away and keeping gas in the air for all the support aircraft that would help."

The CSAR mission took the crew further north into Iraq than they had ever flown before.

"We queried AWACS to make sure that was what they wanted us to do because we were heading into territory that hadn't been cleared for tankers," Howard said. "They knew what they were doing: They had a priority, which was the CSAR. When you've got guys on the ground you take some risks to make things happen, (to) get those guys back home. We happened to be there and were ready to help in any way we could."

The mission eventually placed Python 33 in an orbit near the town of Tikrit, where four F-16s and two F-15s thirsted for fuel. That's when the word "critical" came into play.

"As we got up to the area and were dropping off our first set of F-16s, one of the F-15s came up and was critically short on gas, needed it immediately, so we had to do some sorting around with receivers in trail to allow the guy that was critical fuel to come along," Howard said.

He explained that all of this was happening above unfamiliar and unfriendly territory. "We were relying on the (navigator) to have the maps out, keeping us as safe as possible."

The boom operator, Tech. Sgt. Jim Pittman, came up with the plan to get the most fuel to the thirsty aircraft in the most efficient manner possible.

"We had to come up with several contingencies on the fuel to give as much as we could without going below our fuel requirement," Pittman said. "A couple of contingencies we threw out to AWACS, which was ultimately making the decisions on how the whole operation was working."

At the end of the day, all the aircraft received the fuel they needed and Python 33 made it home safely.

Maj. Brian Neitz, the aircraft commander, downplays the heroism aspect, saying anyone would've acted in the same manner in that situation.

"Everyone we work with felt the same way we did and would've done the same job as we did," Neitz said. "And the only reason we were in the position to do the job we did was just luck. I think anyone would've been happy to do what we did."

Whether or not that's true, many people did consider the crew's actions brave enough to warrant a medal - one of them being Moseley, who said he enjoys no duty more than recognizing excellence.

"We've got an F-15E down," Moseley said. "A day and a half ago, imagery showed tank tracks going through the wreckage. So our (special operations forces) guys are out there, our tankers are out there and we're going to get our two people back.

"But as we lost this airplane and began to push people up there to work this, we had a tanker crew that took it on themselves to conduct some incredibly heroic activity and to be a part of something that is a very powerful message about what airmen do: We fly airplanes in harm's way, whether they're big airplanes or little airplanes, whether they're tankers, whether they're bombers, whether they're fighters, whether they're reconnaissance assets, this is what we do.

"These four great Americans took that airplane up effectively over the top of the threat array, a little bit further north than Tikrit ... brought it back down between Tikrit and Baghdad, and then back down beside Baghdad, and then back down into the southern part of Iraq and then home. So this is in my view a particularly heroic event."

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