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Hot Refueling Is A Bad Sign
by James Dunnigan
March 18, 2010

Another sign that Israel expects to be attacked; air force ground crews are being trained to perform dangerous "hot refueling." This procedure is used to speed up refueling of combat aircraft that have just landed, so they can take off quickly and get back to the fight. It's called "hot" because the engine is kept running while the very explosive fuel is pumped in. This must be done very carefully to avoid an explosion. Not a good thing around an aircraft that is also having new weapons loaded at the same time. Most of the hot refueling training is done on aircraft that have their engines shut off. But you want to do it at least once, with the engine running, per ground crew, so the entire atmosphere of a hot refueling is experienced. This sort of thing is dangerous, and only done if it's highly likely there is going to be a war.

All air forces are big on what is called "generating sorties" (actually getting fueled and armed aircraft into the air and on their way to the target. One aircraft taking off on a mission is a sortie.) In order to keep this process going, you have to have the fuel and weapons in position, as well as maintenance crews, their equipment and spare parts, ready to service the aircraft. A new pilot often gets in the aircraft as well

Only a few percent of air force personnel are pilots, but over 30 percent are involved in servicing those aircraft. If the "maintainers" and other support troops (like the refuelers) are not at the top of their game, those aircraft aren't getting off the ground as quickly as possible, and the battle can be lost.

The U.S. Air Force keeps track of personal and team records, and even has competitions for many job categories. That's good for morale, and also gives the support troops a tangible sense of accomplishment and excellence. Otherwise, the maintenance tasks can be just tedious and boring, which leads to poor performance and expensive errors. During the Cold War, generating the maximum number of sorties per aircraft per day was the main goal. But with the introduction of smart bombs and more complex electronics in the last decade, you don't need as many sorties. But you do need to make sure more complex systems are good to go before a warplane takes off. Thus, the job of the ground crews evolves, but doesn't really change.

For the Israelis, generating the maximum number of sorties per day per aircraft is considered a special talent they have. It's one reason the Israeli Air Force is considered one of the best on the planet. And when you must have the absolute max number of sorties, in the shortest amount of time, you use hot refueling.


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