Many of the soldiers are part-timers _ teachers, attorneys, police officers, doctors, businessmen and others _ who have sought patriotic service, extra pay and worldwide adventure by joining the Utah Air Guard. Some received their initial training on active duty in one of the three U.S. military branches. Many joined the National Guard without previous experience.
The group carries no weapons, only fuel. Its mission is to use its 30-year-old KC-135 tankers to refuel fighters and bombers while in flight. Its current assignment in the event of a nuclear strike is confidential, said Lt. Col. Gordon Hill, commander of the Spain deployment. But the small Spanish air base the unit operated from during the past two weeks is where the unit's tankers would have landed after refueling a bomber under a previous Emergency War Order scenario from the Strategic Air Command. The assignments change regularly to protect confidentiality, Hill said, and because many targets are mobile.
Usually the tanker crews don't know the target destination of the planes they refuel. The instruction from SAC is to rendezvous, usually with a B-52, at a certain time and a certain place and give that aircraft as much fuel as it needs to reach its target _ even if it means the tanker can't make it home and has to crash in the ocean somewhere, said Maj. Roger Gillespie, the unit's public affairs officer.
The 30-year-old tankers actually perform a mission for which newer planes and crews aren't trained. To avoid enemy detection, the KC-135s can use a sextant and ages-old celestial navigation techniques to guide them to a rendezvous area without using any signal-generating electronic navigation equipment an enemy could detect, and without relying on land-based navigation signal points.
Many of the Mediterranean flights during the exercise were radio-silent.
The unit flies an average of two training missions per day from its headquarters at the Salt Lake airport. Many of those missions take place inside Utah, or over Western states an hour or two from home. But overseas training missions, like the one in Spain, are essential for several reasons, Hill said.
Overseas missions give crews experience flying over strange lands in areas where they would be deployed in war. While air traffic controllers worldwide communicate in English, the accents vary, and the intricacies of communicating with controllers from perhaps five different countries all in one mission is somethingthat cannot be simulated on a refueling track over Oklahoma.
"I learn more when I'm not on local trips," said Lt. Holly Nagie, a pilot.
U.S. military forces operate out of four bases in Spain _ four Spanish bases.
At the Moron base, the young Spanish guards carry 9mm Uzi machine guns, speak no English and make no exceptions to base rules. The Spanish are sensitive about security on the tarmac around their American-built F-5 fighters.
Despite the sensitivity, Hill said the Spanish are not hostile, and officers from both countries tried to arrange flights in each other's planes.
Hill estimated U.S. jets operate out of the Moron Air Base about six months of each year. Italian and French fighters thundered in and out of the Moron base during the Utahns' deployment.
The only emergency that occurred during the deployment involved one of the B-52s that would not connect properly to the tanker refueling it during a practice bombing mission. A fuel nozzle from the tanker is supposed to latch to the receiving port on the bomber, but the latch didn't work. On two different occasions a tanker boom operator had to manually "fly" the fuel boom into place and hold it in place while transferring between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of fuel.
"It's something we wouldn't do in a routine exercise," said Senior Master Sgt. Jimmie Duncan. The fact the boom operator was able to make the fuel transfer without a locked connection speaks well for his experience level, Duncan said. "We have three to five times the experience of our active-duty counterparts."
Except for those incidents, all of the 29 flights during the deployment were accomplished on time and without incident, Duncan said.
International politics also plays a role in planning and carrying out foreign training missions.
A soon-to-expire treaty between Spain and the United States has an uncertain future. F-16s from another base near Madrid will likely be moved to Italy and tankers stationed near Barcelona could be moved away from larger population areas to Moron, which is surrounded for miles by olive groves and sunflower fields.
The Utah unit played host to several high-ranking officers during the trip. A visiting Turkish two-star general, Lt. Gen. Alaatin Guven, commander of NATO's 6th Allied Tactical Air Forces, flew on a refueling mission with the Air Guard and even piloted the tanker at the invitation of the American crew.
The health and morale of such a sizable group is also important to keeping the unit operating smoothly.
The flight surgeon who flew to Spain halfway through the deployment was told to bring plenty of medicine to treat an outbreak of diarrhea that struck the Utah soldiers while on foreign soil.
Keeping the soldiers caged up on base during off-duty hours would have been a mistake, Hill said, so a morale, welfare and recreation officer was assigned to arrange bus transportation to points of interest close to Moron.