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27 SOW tests new refueling equipment

Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson (left), the base command chief, works with Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, to thread netting to repair a “rib” on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson (left), the base command chief, works with Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, to thread netting to repair a “rib” on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, guides Col. Ben Maitre (left), the base commander, through a repair process on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, guides Col. Ben Maitre (left), the base commander, through a repair process on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson (left), the base command chief, works with Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, to thread netting to repair a “rib” on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Chief Master Sgt. Erik Thompson (left), the base command chief, works with Airman 1st Class Kyle Stephens, hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team, to thread netting to repair a “rib” on a Variable Speed Drogue assembly, March 7, 2017. Cannon Air Force Base has been the leading edge in testing the VSD, which provides a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. -- Cannon is at the forefront of testing for a piece of equipment that helps extend the missions of Air Force Special Operations flights at home and overseas.

Enter the variable speed drogue, now under testing managed by Hydraulics journeymen with the 27th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Unit.

A piece of aerial refueling equipment years in the making, the VSD has ribs connected by string, allowing the device to change shape depending on how quickly refueling aircraft are moving, according to Senior Airman Darren Watkins, a hydraulics journeyman with the 27 SOAMXS, 9 AMU.

“Evaluating the drogue has been a change from our normal duties,” Watkins said. “It’s more complex work, and it keeps us in communication with sheet metals Airmen, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Unit [responsible for maintaining the CV-22 Osprey] Airmen and the engineers who manufacture the VSD.”

Previously in aerial refueling, Airmen had to decide which basket-like drogue--a stabilizer and funnel connected to the flexible hose that feeds fuel to the trailing aircraft--to extend to the aircraft needing fuel. The drogues came in low and high-speed varieties intended for different aircraft, and are pre-configured prior to takeoff to support certain aircraft on a given mission.

What the VSD provides is a gap-filler capability to refuel aircraft between low and high speeds; enabling more flexibility for mission support.

“We’ve been flying them close to every day over the last 3 months,” said Airman 1st Class Justin Ryckman, another hydraulics journeyman with the evaluation team. “we’re still working with the test engineers and AFETS [Air Force Engineering and Technical Services] representatives in the middle of a testing phase in order to see what other improvements can be made.”

Cannon’s interest in this variable speed capability seeks to address an issue for CV-22 Ospreys. Just as the Osprey blurs the line between fixed wing aircraft and helicopter, its capabilities also blurs the line between low and high-speed: if the Osprey runs on one engine, it moves too fast for the low-speed drogue and too slow for the high-speed.

After every test flight using the new equipment, the team of evaluators do the intricate work of inspecting, repairing, and making suggestions for re-engineering the drogue’s countless moving parts.

“The work is more complex, but it’s also more satisfying,” Ryckman said. “It’s showed us that you can still learn new things no matter how long you’ve been on the job.”