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Monona resident has experience of lifetime flying with Air National Guard Wing

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Grant Langhus (front, center with white tag on chest), a Monona resident and Luana Savings Bank employee, in October experienced a flight arranged by the 132d Iowa Air National Guard Wing. It was through the Department of Defense’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, whose mission is to marry the private and public sectors. (Photo courtesy of Grant Langhus)

During the flight, Langhus experienced a mid-air refueling between the 185th Air Refueling Wing based in Sioux City and 180th Fighter Wing based in Toledo, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Grant Langhus)

The KC-135 Langhus flew in has a crew of three to four, with a capacity of 200,000 pounds of fuel. (Photo courtesy of Grant Langhus)

In addition to delivering fuel, the airplane can hold up to 80 people and also serve as medical evac. (Photo courtesy of Grant Langhus)

By Grant Langhus, Special to the Times-Register

 

At the end of October, I was presented an opportunity of a lifetime: A flight, arranged by the 132d Iowa Air National Guard Wing based in Des Moines. But not just any flight: A chance to experience a mid-air refueling between the 185th Air Refueling Wing based in Sioux City and 180th Fighter Wing based in Toledo, Ohio. I had the brief privilege of lying down alongside the boom operator, mere feet above a fighter jet, at 300 miles per hour and 24,000 feet above the earth.

 

In 1972, the Department of Defense established Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR). I found myself on the 132d’s base adjacent Des Moines International airport on behalf of my employer, Luana Savings Bank. While employers recognize the importance of our service members, we often struggle with their absence when serving. Ultimately, ESGR’s mission is to marry the private and public sectors—to ensure each not only operates effectively but also benefits from one another to the greatest extent possible.

 

Late October had been dreary; that Wednesday morning was no exception. Several leaders from a variety of Iowa businesses gathered on base in the Snake Pit, boasting views of both runways. As commercial and private aircraft took off, we met with Air National Guard (ANG) leaders and airmen (all ANG, regardless sex or role, are known as airmen). We learned about the base, its missions and discussed how both the public and private sectors rely on one another, and how best to work together. Soon, we watched as our hops arrived—two dark gray KC-135 Stratotankers from the 185th.

 

The 132d is comprised of approximately 350 full-time personnel and another 900 airmen, including part-time. I learned the 132d and our other Iowa ANG bases, paired with Iowa Army National Guard, is diversified enough for Iowa to be entirely self-sufficient. Iowa’s several thousand guardsmen not only serve at the command of our president and congress, but also our state’s governor. That is, at any time, Gov. Kim Reynolds is able to call upon our units to assist during a natural disaster, for instance. However, she could also call them instantaneously to comprehensively defend our state in a number of other emergencies, including civil unrest...or worse.

 

While Iowa’s weather was fair that day, 132d ops had been tracking snow to our north and storms south, interfering with the jets (or receivers) we had intended to refuel. Before long, 132d logistics found another group of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets looking to rehearse to our east. We completed our safety briefing, walked onto the tarmac and climbed aboard.

 

The KC-135 has been around a few years, proving itself a venerable workhorse. More than 800 were built, eclipsing capabilities of other nations. Crew varies from three to four, with a capacity of 200,000 pounds of fuel. Max speed is surprisingly nearly the speed of sound. The KC-135 is not only used to deliver fuel but also cargo, up to 80 people, and also serve as medical evac as was evident by the stretchers hanging in our Stratotanker. The aircraft was spick-and-span; you could literally see your reflection in the floor. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder down the length of the aircraft in two rows facing one another. Takeoff, banking and initial climb certainly felt “spirited” as compared to commercial jaunts I’d been on. There were five seats in the cockpit; with only three being used by the crew on our jump, a couple ESGR participants were lucky enough to sit up front.

 

The bulk of 132d’s airmen fall under the “operations” and “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” groups. Right now, live missions featuring MQ-9 Reaper (aka Predator B) drones are being flown across the globe by remote pilots in our very own back yard. The 132d also employs munitions experts that ensure airstrikes are conducted with utmost precision and avoid collateral damage. As part of the Operations Group, Iowa’s 132d also boasts a sizable Cyberspace Operations Squadron, which I took particular interest in as an IT professional myself. There is a full-fledged medical group on base. The Mission Support Group includes roles from civil engineers to firefighters, logistics and communications to security forces. Rounding out the base is a “Distributed Training Operations Center” unit responsible for keeping service members trained across our nation.

 

Again, I couldn’t have guessed the amount of technical prowess right here in our very own state, hence our nickname “Silicone Prairie,” I suppose. Guard leaders rightfully kept emphasizing to employers that skills learned on base have subsequently empowered the private sector—and I could clearly see why. A theme that kept recurring was how versatile (i.e., employable) airmen are: One particular woman had served in no less than four wildly different capacities.

 

Another recurring theme was teamwork. As we climbed through the clouds, we made visual contact with our companion Stratotanker and began the trek toward Ohio on their six. The cockpit’s door remained open; after we leveled out and it was safe to remove our belts, we were invited up front for a brief chance to speak with our pilots. Earlier in the morning, we’d also engaged with three former F-16 pilots, previously of the 132d.

 

The miles to Ohio passed in seconds. All at once, there was a flurry of activity: Five F-16 Fighting Falcons had fallen into formation alongside our lead tanker. Even though I’ve been to dozens of airshows, I can’t begin to explain the feeling of awe witnessing the formation from mid-air. I thought to myself, “the view from this workplace [ANG] simply can’t be beat—not even a skyscraper corner office can compare.”

 

One of the former F-16 pilots, now ESGR volunteer, was onboard. He’d been sharing what it’d been like to fly, refuel mid-air and, of course, a few stories. No sooner than we had witnessed those fighters ahead, we had picked up three Falcons of our own. Like geese, the F-16s cycled from lead-to-rear-to-lead as they took turns refueling.

 

We’d been briefed how to carefully and quickly position next to the “boomer.” Each of us had but a few seconds total—refueling is generally quick, but especially today as we weren’t carrying a full complement of fuel and the receivers were only looking for 1,000 pounds or so. As my turn arrived, I reminded myself of perhaps the most important safety instruction from briefing: “Remember, whatever you do, do not bump the boom operator!”

 

I’ll be honest, I had never really considered the importance of mid-air refueling. In fact, I naively considered it an air superiority stunt. It turns out, however, to be extremely strategic. An aircraft can only take off with so much weight, especially given any number of runway limitations [in battle]. Take-off consumes a considerable amount of fuel to reach altitude until engines can be throttled back. Mid-air refueling allows greater payload capacity—whether bombs, missiles, cargo or people. Fighters, cargo aircraft, even helicopters refuel aerially. And, since not every branch of our armed forces operates aircraft carriers, aerial refueling may be the only option to move some aircraft great distances.

 

As I lay next to the boomer making eye contact with the fighter pilot, time began to crawl and everything else melted away. Personal stresses, politics, what’s going on in Washington, became absolutely insignificant in that moment. I had a couple epiphanies: First was the profound precision so many humans must be capable of. This wasn’t a Navy Blue Angels or Airforce Thunderbirds performance; the airmen, from pilots to boomers and everyone in between, must number in the tens of thousands. All capable of the same discipline. And second: our private sector, like defense contractors—everyday, next-door-neighbor civilians who engineered and built these aircraft—also wield the utmost skill and precision and likely themselves number in the millions. At that moment, I realized how amazing we are despite bad news constantly circulating the media. I was proud, curious, intrigued, thankful, inspired; an entire deluge of emotions brought a tear to my eye.

 

I feel a tap on my foot; my turn is over and I get up as quickly…and carefully…as possible. I head to a port-side window where I see two fighters again just off our wing. Our resident F-16 pilot was enthusiastically explaining one was likely a trainer—it featured an additional seat and longer canopy. But the other Falcon…had missiles mounted to its hardpoints. Whether or not the munitions were live was irrelevant. It reminded me, once again, this wasn’t an airshow and all our jets that day were primed and ready to defend America. I couldn’t help but feel secure with the F-16s so close. I was honored to be among other airmen that surely have shared the same emotion, in battle escorted home by fighters.

 

I was again amazed how close the F-16s appeared and the sheer precision. We had now traversed most of the latitude of Ohio, closing in on the northern border of Kentucky; our F-16s pulled away and we banked toward Iowa, climbing to 33,000 feet. Sitting across from one another we were forced to make eye contact, to read the expressions on each other’s faces. The hum of our four massive engines was a bit louder than a commercial flight and we were wearing earplugs. We tried—and did—hold some conversation earlier, but after what we had just experienced, words no longer needed to be spoken.

 

I should disclose I have always been pro-military. I generally don’t grumble (too loudly) when I pay federal taxes because I believe in the United States of America. Yes, we have an enormous defense budget, which we do need to have healthy debates over. However, I hope we can all appreciate money spent on our armed forces doesn’t simply evaporate: It fuels our economy, and this experience reinforces my conviction in that statement. Defense contractors rely heavily on domestic parts and labor, not to mention all the servicemen and women collecting paychecks. I have no issue supporting our best and brightest through my taxes. Our military provides opportunity to shape the next productive members of our society. The transition of Americans from public to private sector also empowers our economy, yet another positive differentiator as compared to other nations.

 

All of us have been affected by the “Great Resignation” recently. The quality of products and services is deteriorating while costs climb. While we could debate this politically, I’d like to instead hypothesize that technology might be to blame. Maybe humans are [painfully] transitioning to a future where we simply don’t need to work in the same manner as our ancestors due to computerization and automation. I personally believe AI is decades away from being “complete.” We have some of the most brilliant minds and powerful computing resources in the world entirely dedicated to singular AI issues like autonomous driving, let alone attempting to master every other discipline humans are capable of. Our resources (i.e., labor, power, computer chips, raw minerals) are simply too limited to make this transition as quickly as we are attempting. Labor may become even more strained. World population is projected to decrease substantially—the wheels are already in motion.

 

If we continue to struggle with this technological transition, I believe we will need our old-fashioned values, including discipline, hard work and precision more than ever. We may need our servicemen and women not to wage war, but simply to preserve human civilization.

 

Thank you to everyone who made this possible: ESGR, Luana Savings Bank and, last but never least, all those who have served, are serving or intend to serve in any capacity, in any branch. Sincerely, thank you.

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