SOUTHWEST ASIA -- There are many predictable things about deployments, but for one Airman, the unpredictable happened. He didn't expect a family reunion, but got one - at 23,000 feet in the air two days before Christmas.
The day started like any other for 1st Lt. Michael Ellsworth, 963rd Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron air weapons officer. His assigned E-3 Sentry was scheduled for a refuel during the mission, and Ellsworth was responsible for lining up the aircraft for the refuel.
"My boss asked if I wanted to lead a weapons-director directed rendezvous," Ellsworth explained. "It was hectic because it's like a big geometry puzzle. You've got two aircraft both flying and you have to turn one of them so that it rolls in behind the other at a specific distance and angle."
After successfully connecting to a KC-135 Stratotanker for the refuel, the co-pilot called back to the rear and said, "Ellsworth, come up here, someone knows you." Ellsworth then swapped seats and looked up through the little triangle window.
"I saw my brother looking down at us waving with this huge, goofy smile on his face," Ellsworth said with a laugh. "We got to talk for a good 10 minutes through the boom interphone, which is like a walkie-talkie between the aircraft."
Airman 1st Class Anthony Ellsworth was the boom operator aboard the KC-135 when he recognized his brother's voice over the radio.
"I was really happy knowing my brother was there. It was a cool feeling, hearing my brother's voice at 23,000 feet," said Anthony.
The brothers both joined the Air Force two years ago and, despite the differences in their career fields and rank, their paths have crossed several times.
"We were both at survival training at the same time, so we would spend every day together," Michael said.
"We were also both in Oklahoma for different trainings at the same time, so we got to spend Thanksgiving together at our uncle's house that year," Anthony added.
The brothers, both from Ypsilanti, Mich., were saddened when they learned that Michael got orders to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, while his brother, Anthony, got orders to Kadena Air Base, Japan.
"We thought we wouldn't be able to see each other again for a long time," Michael said, and for more than a year they were right.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to speak to my brother," Anthony said. "What an awesome thing to happen while I was doing my job in the air!"
The brothers had the opportunity to connect and exchange holiday wishes during the refuel.
"After disconnecting, we called over the radio to say thank you for the gas," he said. "They responded, 'No problem. Tell Michael his brother loves him.' "
While it doesn't replace spending time with his brother at home or during the holidays, the chance encounter of two brothers 23,000 feet in the air did bring some joy to Michael.
"When I found out it was my brother in the other aircraft, I told him, 'Mom is going to be crazy surprised,' " he said with a smile. "The fact that I have seen him this many times in such a short career is insane, but cool!"