Ill. National Guard unit readies for Libya

March 23, 2011 6:14:06 AM PDT
Members of an Illinois National Guard unit are finishing preparations for their deployment to the no-fly zone over Libya.

They fly the tankers that refuel jet fighters at speeds of 500 miles an hour.

They will join Operation Odyssey Dawn, an international coalition empowered by the United Nations, to impose the no-fly zone.

The Illinois Air National Guard's 126th Air Refueling Wing is preparing for their mission.

Capt. Ryan Shireman was doing a pre-flight check on Tuesday, making sure the bird is ready to go. His walk around even includes kicking the tires.

He's already said a quick good-bye to his wife and two young daughters, unsure of when he'll be back.

"That's the weird thing. You're leaving your family but at the same time, you're pumped about doing something operational, something that's actually affecting the world. That's what we signed up for," said Shireman, 126th Guard Air Refueling Wing.

Ryan flies the KC-135 Stratotanker, an airborne gas station that carries 32,000 gallons of fuel for mid-air gas-ups of fighters, bombers cruising nose-to-tail at 500 miles an hour.

"When that aircraft gets so close that you can almost read its name tag, I still get goosepimples to this day and say this is why I still do this job, because of this," said Tech. Sgt. Mark Buzenski,126th Guard Air Refueling Wing.

Buzenski is a veteran air traffic controller in Aurora. In his military life, he operates the boom on the KC-135.

He's been all over the globe with the Illinois Air National Guard's 126th Air Refueling Wing.

He and his fellow guardsmen are ready to go again -- this time to the Mediterranean as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn

The 126th was supposed to be on a training mission in Wisconsin, but some of its members were put on alert for the Middle East, and that means making sure all the gear is good to go.

This unit has a long and storied history with missions around the globe. It was based at O'Hare International Airport until 1999 when it moved to Scott Air Force Base.

"We've been involved in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, conflicts in the Balkans," said Col. Pete Nezamis, 126th Air Refueling Wing Commander.

Now, another conflict will take this refueling team to a distant theater of war. Who goes and where they operate out of is classified, but their job is critical -- keeping coalition aircraft constantly airborne.

"They do a real good job by planning the they we can, and they use all the resources we have to make the mission as safe as possible. There is always a risk in everything we do but just try and minimize that," said Tom Ratkovich, 126th Guard Air Refueling Wing.

Lt. Col. Scott Kosmopolis has been with the 126th for 27 years, most of that when the unit was based at O'Hare.

"I grew up in Chicago. That's home for me," Kosmopolis said.

He stayed aboard when the Wing relocated to Scott Air Force Base. The Stratotanker he flies was built in the mid-1960s, almost the same year he was born.

"They really built it right even though it's over 40, 50 years old," Kosmopolis said.

Most of the Stratotankers will be retired over the next decade. Boeing has won a multibillion dollar contract to build the next generation of larger air re-fuelers.

That's exciting here, but the focus is on the mission. The 126th found out late Tuesday that they'll deploy later this week.

For most of these men and women, the tough part is not about what they trained to do -- it's that quick goodbye to family and not knowing when you'll be coming home.