FARP: Night Owls of USSOCOM

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Andrea Posey
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
Under the cover of darkness, a team of specially trained Airmen stand by a tanker aircraft in preparation for a covert refueling operation. The group waits as helicopters hover-taxi within 300 feet of one another and the tanker aircraft. Once the helicopters are in range, the awaiting Airmen rush to haul more than 760 feet of refueling hoses to the aircraft to transfer the necessary fuel needed for them to get back into the fight.

Due to the covert nature of these operations, aircraft lights are shut off so they can remain undetected by enemy forces, making the Airmen’s use of night vision goggles essential.

Even with the use of night vision, connecting a tanker aircraft to a receiver aircraft via their fueling connections can be tough, but for the team’s forward area refueling point Airmen, this operation is just a normal night out in the field.

FARP is a United States Special Operations Command program under the management of the 1st Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron that trains petroleum, oils and lubrication Airmen to become FARP technicians. These men and women perform covert nighttime refueling operations in deployed locations where fueling points are not accessible or when air-to-air refueling is not possible.

FARP acts as a mobile gas station for aircraft enabling one aircraft to transfer fuel to another with a small pump, hoses and Airmen capable of getting the job done.

“Special Operations Forces are required to execute missions that conventional forces can't,” said Lt. Col. John Klohr, commander of the 1st SOLRS. “The FARP skill set extends the range and loiter time of aircraft and vehicles enabling small SOF teams to have an impact over a wider geographical area. Such an advantage enables SOF to achieve the element of surprise any time, any place from remote areas in Southwest Asia or North Africa in order to bring the full brunt of special operations to bear on our enemies.”

Historically, hot refuels or refueling while the aircraft’s engines are running, has been used in times of war as means for assets to return to battle faster.

“The German Air Force used the concept on the Eastern Front [by] using a series of satellite locations located near the front and manned only when operations dictated where pilots landed to refuel and rearm,” said Todd Schroeder, the staff historian with Air Force Special Operations Command. “In Vietnam, the United States Army [used this concept] as a way of returning their helicopters to the air sooner by landing at established FARP points close to the battle area.”

In 1980, the special operations community recognized there was a need for a formalized FARP program after the failed Iran hostage rescue mission, better known as Operation Eagle Claw.

“The FARP program was USSOCOM’s solution to a need identified during the Iran hostage rescue attempt,” said Master Sgt. James Albanesi, FARP team chief with the 1st SOLRS. “That [mission] made it very clear there was a need for a highly efficient means of transferring fuel from aircraft to aircraft in a hostile environment under the cover of night.”

Operation Eagle Claw was a failed attempt to end the Iran hostage crisis which began Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian militant students took 66 Americans hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Ultimately, the April 24, 1980 mission failed because of inexperience with long flights during night time operations, refueling delays caused by desert conditions, and aircraft mechanical issues.

Further ill fortune was encountered after the mission was cancelled when a helicopter collided with a tanker aircraft during departure, causing a fire to spread to other aircraft in the area, and killing eight men.

“POL Airmen and MC-130 aircrew need to go through extensive training due to the complexity of conducting FARP in austere conditions at night, as illustrated by the loss of life [during Operation Eagle Claw],” Klohr said. “The repercussions of not being able to conduct a successful FARP operation in 1980 is why we have AFSOC today. The Airmen who conduct this mission truly exemplify one of the five SOF truths, 'Humans are more important than hardware.’”

Today, Hurlburt Field is one of a select number of bases around the world that conducts FARP missions.

Hurlburt is also home to the program’s training school.

POL Airmen of any rank who have completed upgrade training can volunteer to receive FARP training. The school house annually hosts 12 classes that qualifies an average of 36 FARP Airmen and 36 aircrew.

Before attending school, POL Airmen must pass a class III flight physical assessment and physiological training. They must also complete training in life support, intelligence, night vision goggles, ground evacuation and ground crew chemical warfare.

“Because we’re flying with aircrew, Airmen go through flight physical assessments and physiological training to know how their body adjusts to decompressions and lack of oxygen,” Albanesi said. “The additional training is intended to ensure Airmen can instantaneously respond if there is a catastrophe and carry forward with the mission.”

After qualifying in these areas, Airmen attend the training school to complete Phase I, II and III FARP classes to learn safety requirements, conduct simulated hands-on training and practice FARP operations. Additional training includes the Air Force Combat and Water Survival School at Fairchild AFB, Washington.

Altogether, it takes several months for POL Airmen to complete FARP training.

“FARP is truly a specialized skill set similar to explosive ordnance disposal and security forces,” Klohr said. “Only the very best in the fuels community become FARP members because we have a no-fail mission that is successful due to the deliberate approach and commitment we make to advanced tactical training.”

Once training is complete, Airmen are awarded the 035 FARP special experience identifier code, which classifies them as FARP trained personnel. As of Jan. 18, 2017, less than 2 percent of fuels personnel world-wide are active fully-qualified FARP Airmen.

Staff Sgt. Michael Dunning, the FARP program manager for the 1st SOLRS, particularly recalls a 12-to-14-hour, two-day training session consisting of extending fuel hoses, pressurizing them, squeegeeing them and reconfiguring the hoses for redeployment. Squeegeeing is a process of rapidly evacuating fuel hoses by pulling a squeegee, a metal tool with two rolling pin like devices, to force fuel manually from the hoses back into the tanker aircraft.

“Considering all of the training involved in the entire process, I felt extremely relieved and gratified to complete the FARP training,” Dunning said. “However, our training is continuous and ever-evolving to remain relevant to the Air Force Special Operations Command mission; this allows us to remain a current, cutting edge capability for the Air Force.”

For Dunning, becoming FARP qualified was worth the rigorous training as it gave him an opportunity to fulfill a different mission in his career field. He has been able to learn new, advanced skills necessary for special operations deployed contingencies.

As the most deployed wing in the United States Air Force, the 1st Special Operation Wing’s mission is to execute global special operations any time, any place. This requires the FARP team to be ready to deploy to remote locations 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Within the last year, FARP team members have been on multiple deployments for more than 100 days that supported missions such as combat search and rescue, air field seizure and hostage extraction.

“Our program is vital to ensuring USSOCOM aircraft have fuel to perform their special operations missions and extend deeper into operating areas,” Dunning said. “Without our program, the success of Special Operations Forces missions are limited or significantly degraded. Having the capabilities the FARP program provides is a serious force multiplier and asset to the special operations portfolio.”

To maintain relevance in the future, the SOF fleet is constantly updating its training methods and assets. In January 2013, AFSOC began modifications on the MC-130J Commando II to create a hybrid C-130 model with the flying proficiencies of the MC-130J and the combat capabilities of an AC-130U gunship.

The Commando II flies night time, low visibility, single or multi-ship, low-level air refueling missions for special operations helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft, as well as infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions in hostile territories.

The first aircraft was delivered in late 2011 to Cannon AFB with final delivery expected in 2017.

“FARP is a must-have capability that will only increase in demand over the next decade,” Klohr said. “AFSOC will continue to transform FARP through modernization and sustainment of the program. Bringing on the new MC-130J and new next generation FARP package will ensure our ability to deliver fuel anywhere for the foreseeable future.”