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Inside the Air Force's Largest Fuel Farm in Fight vs. ISIS

Airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron arrange a 200,000-gallon fuel bladder at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, April 4, 2013. (US Air Force photo/Christina Styer)
Airmen of the 380th Air Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron arrange a 200,000-gallon fuel bladder at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, April 4, 2013. (US Air Force photo/Christina Styer)

It's one of the largest fuel farms in the world, from which U.S. military planes guzzle while flying operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The 380th Air Expeditionary Wing's fuel farm -- which houses 25 fuel bladders outdoors in the sweltering desert heat -- offloaded 255 million gallons of fuel in 2016 to refuel tankers such as the KC-10 Extender, fighters and even drones.

"We're the number one supply to combat sorties in the entire Air Force," said Airman Ellis with the 380th Expeditionary Logistics and Readiness Squadron's fuels management team.

"On an average day, we issue 383,000 gallons (or 2.5 million pounds) of fuel to various aircraft," he said.

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Military.com spoke with members of the 380th on a recent trip to the Middle East, on condition the exact location of the base not be disclosed and that full names of personnel not be used due to safety concerns amid ongoing air operations against ISIS.

Several days after this story was published, the Air Force changed its policy, allowing Military.com to reveal the 380th AEW is at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates.

Aside from major fuel ops, the wing oversees the KC-10 tanker, the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude drone, the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet as they carry out missions such as air refueling; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air battle management, control and reporting center; ground attack; air support and others.

To no one's surprise, the logistics airmen's biggest customer is the KC-10. The refueling plane can carry roughly 356,000 pounds (or 53,000 gallons) of fuel, almost twice as much as the KC-135 Stratotanker, according to the Air Force.

On the flight line, airmen know just which systems they must link up, considering they may have to refuel planes at a moment's notice.

"We have 12 hydrant pits on the flight line, which we use an R-12 [hydrant-servicing vehicle] to issue to a KC-10," Ellis said.

Having a dozen pits "reduces turnaround time and maintenance hours, especially during hot refueling, so they don't have to shut down the aircraft," he said.

Hot refueling -- refueling a plane while its engines are on -- has become more in-demand, especially for airlift cargo aircraft such as the C-130 Hercules, which make multiple trips throughout a day.

What speeds that process even more is the Type III, Constant-Pressure Hydrant Fueling System, known by the 380th as Bubba. The system -- pumps, filters, microprocessors and transmitters -- provides a constant fuel pressure through the pumps, lines and trucks, to the aircraft and then back to the pumps.

Since the airmen are servicing larger aircraft, the Type III system allows them to push 900 gallons a minute.

"We use a truck that doesn't have a tank on it -- it hooks up directly to the loop, now connected to the tanks," said Airman Coe, a fuels distribution operator. "So you're refueling these KC-10 aircraft directly from the system … and you no longer have to go fill your truck up and then come back."

Ellis added, "It increases efficiency and speed in refueling or de-fueling operations so we don't have to send multiple trucks out there."

Different aircraft get different fuel. For example, low-flashpoint fuels, designed for a lower freezing point, are used in the RQ-4 and U-2, Ellis said, because the aircraft fly at such high altitudes, where both temperature and atmospheric pressure decrease.

"We have to keep it colder than [the standard] JP-8," a fuel widely used by the military, he said. The fuel is kept separately under tents, and closer to its distribution point on the flight line.

Similarly, in a separate area, airmen monitor a cryogenic storage area, which uses two "3,000-gallon double-wall tanks to store our liquid oxygen," Ellis explained.

"It gets as cold at minus 360 degrees, and it boils at minus 297 degrees. We use it in our aircraft to supply the pilots with clean, breathable air," he said.

In an average month, the 380th receives 11 million gallons of fuel from its host nation's state-owned oil company. Military.com was asked not to disclose the oil company's name due to host nation sensitivities.

Surprisingly, how the airmen measure fuel levels isn't very technically advanced.

"We use a string and a stick with a level on it just to account for the fuel, but we will be getting a digital [automated tank gauge], which uses sonar to read the bag," Ellis said.

Tracking the levels needs to be precise because fuel expands in the heat and may give off an increased reading, the logistics team said.

Since the intense heat is often a nuisance, the airmen running outdoor operations look forward to getting underground, hardline fuel tanks to replace the bladders.

"We have to replace the bags every seven years," Coe said. He explained tanks will provide more stability, and less maintenance work, to the teams working the 24/7 operations. The team recently replaced one of the fuel bladders due to deterioration.

The airmen's goal is to be fast. When asked whether their speed and efficiency gives other aircraft -- including coalition -- a reason to touch down the base to refuel, Coe said, "We're the largest combat-producing base in the Air Force [for refuel], that they know they can rely on us to get their aircraft up, and when they come down, they can go right back up if they need to.

"We just go out there, and dig our boots a little deeper, and give them what they need," he said.

-- Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the exact location of the 380th AEW. Previously, Military.com was asked not to disclose the base's location and that full names of personnel not be used due to safety concerns amid ongoing air operations against ISIS. The policy regarding the 380th has since changed.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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