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Aerial refueling exercise foreshadows AirFest

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2014 at 07:04 AM

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As the A-10 Thunderbolt II, nicknamed the Warthog, approaches the business end of the long refueling boom, Air Force MSgt. Nancy Primm takes control of the KC-135 Stratotanker, calmly conducting an aerial pas-de-deux 20,000 feet above the earth.

For a few minutes, the two aging aircraft, moving through the skies over Valdosta Georgia at about 230 miles per hour — slow for jets — are linked. Primm and the Warthog pilot practice the delicate aerial refueling maneuver that keeps fighters, bombers and almost every other aircraft in the Air Force inventory gassed up and ready to go.

One by one, the six A-10s from the 23rd Wing out of Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, pull up, link up and pull out. No fuel is exchanged, but the exercise allows the pilots to take advantage of a much-needed chance to hone their skills and stay proficient.

There is a bit of sad irony to the mission. Thanks to budget cuts, the Air Force wants to ground the entire A-10 fleet to save more than $3 billion. Meanwhile, those same cuts could bring an additional eight tankers to MacDill. That this may be one of Primm's last chances to link up with the Warthog is not lost on Primm.

“It was the greatest,” says Primm, a boom operator on one of the 16 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets currently stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, a short while later as the A-10s peel off back home. “I love my job.”

And on this day, the mission — almost scrubbed because a huge C-17 cargo jet from another base couldn't get off the ground — was to show a contingent of local media the value of the KC-135, which is flown out of MacDill by the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing.

The flight of 0342, which rolled off the assembly line in 1960, was scheduled ahead of next week's air show, now called MacDill Air Force Base Presents Tampa Bay AirFest 2014. That clunky moniker was created to highlight participation from the community, where a group of local leaders raised about a half of the estimated $500,000 it takes to put on the show, scheduled for March 22 and 23.

AirFest, which will feature the Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatics team, a dozen civilian acts and static displays of almost every aircraft in the flying branch inventory, is on track, says Col. Scott DeThomas, the base commander who is putting on his first air show.

“Weather,” says Maj. Matt Parker, the show director, when asked what is keeping him up at night with AirFest little more than a week away.

A KC-135, along with the Thunderbirds, will be one of four military acts, including the USSOCOM jump team and a static line jump by the Joint Communications Support Element.

This will mark Primm's last show in uniform. Next month, she retires after 24 years in a career that included about 3,000 flying hours — half of them combat missions — and the honor of being part of the first U.S. military air crew to land in Moscow after the end of the Cold War.

“I am going to keep flying right up to the end,” says Primm. “I want to enjoy every minute I have left here.”

Gates open at 8 a.m.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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