Bill's Radio Site

Air-to-Air Refuelling over Nova Scotia

Last revised June 24, 2012

Most Nova Scotians have no idea that the US Air Force routinely refuels its aircraft over this province.  These operations can be heard on the scanner and can be seen even with the naked eye if you look up at the right time.  I am no expert in this topic.   For almost daily discussion of this topic by the regional experts and aficionados you should check the thread that is now over 75 pages long at www.radioreference.com : Sitings, monitorings, photos and heads-up's.

This page is derived over time from various sources but principally is updated from the radioreference public postings and comments from such local area experts as  darrylcn, looknlisten and NE1C4NSC4N.  This description below is not intended to be in-depth or particularly authoritative.  It is for the listener new to the topic who, if interested, should afterwards head over to take in what these and other knowledgeable people are saying.

Northeast-bound over Yarmouth, NS: USAF C-17 Tail #09-9205 (Call Sign Reach 1821) from 437th Airlift Wing (437 AW) (Yellow Tail) based at Joint Base Charleston, NC, being fuelled by a KC-135 thought to be Ethyl 12 from the New Jersey Air National Guard's 108th Air Refuelling Wing out of Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst.
Altitude approximately 24,000 ft.   15/06/2012 / 18:59:02 AST.  Canon T1i with Sigma 150mm-500mm Lens,F8.0 @ 1/250sec



Armed forces carry out air to air refuelling (AAR) all over the world.   Canada itself has some limited AAR capability using the CC-150 Polaris (A310 Airbus) and also the CC-130 Hercules, both employing the probe and drogue method.  It is highly unlikely that you would see or hear Canadian AAR in our region.  The largest AAR user by far is the the United States Air Force and its subsidiaries the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, and they are very active in the skies above Nova Scotia.   Generally the USAF uses the boom method, but can also use probe and drogue, the method used by US Navy and Marine aircraft. For more information about AAR itself check out this Wikipedia article .

Over Nova Scotia. the USAF refuels aircraft that are heading across the Atlantic or have just done so.   There are many specified routes or tracks for AAR and one of the these, AR-20, more or less goes along the length of Nova Scotia.    Scanner listeners can certainly hear the AAR operations and if you are in the right location can look up and see it happening, even with the naked eye.    I am fortunate to live almost directly under AR-20 in the vicinity of Halifax.

AAR is part of the air traffic above the province and as such the aircraft are under the general control of the civilian Area Control Centres (ACC).   Predominantly AR-20 is in airspace controlled by Moncton Centre (CZQM) but the approaches are carried out in the southwest in Boston's area, and in the northeast in Gander's area (CZQX).   Boston is referred to as an ARTCC (Air Route Traffic Control Center), the American equivalent of the ACC.   [Note that the spelling in the US is "center", whereas in Canada it is "centre".]  AAR is carried out at altitudes in the range of 15000 to 25000 feet.     This puts it in the low level part of our airspace and therefore the flight control operations, i.e. general altitude and heading, are carried out on the Moncton Centre low frequency of 123.9 for the most part, but could also be heard on 135.3 or 118.6 at the more north-easterly end.     The communications between the aircraft involved and dealing with the actual maneuvres are carried out on military UHF and occasionally military VHF on published frequencies as described below.

AR-20, as for other tracks, is specified in relation to defined geographical points.     These points may be actual radio navigation beacon locations, VOR's, and identified by 3 letters.     AR-20 lies on a track oriented between the Sydney VOR (YQY) and the Yarmouth VOR (YQI).     You will not actually hear these VOR's in these operations, and they are merely reference points for the AAR aircraft.    The defined end points or anchor points could just as well be defined navigational waypoints that are not actual radio navigation beacons, and these are identified by five letters (or occasionally a mix of letters and digits).   Examples of waypoints or fixes are TUSKY, ALLEX or KEVLU.   

Prior to, and following the actual AAR you will often hear the aircraft descending from higher altitudes and subsequently ascending, and therefore you will also hear the aircraft on the high level frequencies, generally Moncton's 135.2, 125.25 and 132.75 MHz but also Boston's 133.45 MHz or sometimes 134.95.   Tankers coming from the west or departing that direction might be on 127.125.  This is not the complete list as it does depend on where the aircraft are arriving from and heading to.   If you are able to observe the end of an AAR operation, it is fascinating to see a contrail coming from a joined pair (or more) or aircraft breaking up into separate ones going off in different directions.  For a depiction of civil control frequencies in this area see my high level and low level maps.

Frequencies used for comms between the military aircraft are mostly military UHF 341.75 primary and 349.7 secondary.   Units operating out of McGuire AFB are reported to also use 139.875 in the AM mode.    This frequency is in the United States VHF military band and your scanner will likely default to FM, so you will have to manually change to AM for that frequency if it is even possible with your equipment.    In Canada, the band from 138 to 144 MHz is just another segment of civil FM VHF.

Here is a chart of AR-20 frequencies updated in June 2012.  Some of these frequencies may be rarely used or obsolete but it may be useful to program them all into your scanner:

Display Frequency
MCGUIRE KC-10 139.875
B-2 A/A 2 228.125
B52 A/A 228.275
MAINE IFR A/A 238.200
GUARD - UHF-Mil 243.000
B-52 A/A 256.275
104TH FW 259.900
B-1 A/A 1 262.000
USAF Fuel 265.65 265.650
B-1 A/A 2 267.000
CORONET CAN B PR 282.000
POSS CRNT A SEC 303.000
USAF Fuel 305.5 305.500
MAINEIAC OPS 311.000
B-1 A/A 3 315.825
B-2 A/A 318.050
C-17 A/A 319.400
PEASE OPS 321.000
USAF Fuel 337.4 337.400
USAF Fuel 339.4 339.400
AR-020 PRIMARY 341.750
ELLSWORTH B1 A/A 343.000
USAF Fuel 343.5 343.500
AR-O20 SECONDARY 349.700
NORAD 364.200
USAF Fuel 373.6 373.600
CORONET B SEC 388.400
CORONET B PRI 391.000
CORONET A PRI 396.200

 

How do you know you are hearing aircraft involved in AAR?     I do need more information on this topic; however it is common to hear tanker aircraft identify as "Ethyl" followed by a number.      The aircraft being refuelled may be USAF transport aircraft which are generally identified with a "Reach" prefix.   Combatant aircraft will use call signs that vary with the wing or squadron.   This is similar to Canadian practice in which transport aircraft are callsigned with the "Canforce" prefix whereas other aircraft have a squadron call sign prefix.  At this point I do not know what website would be the best to look up American military callsigns, but you can Google to find a few.    Even I with limited knowledge can see errors or omissions in the various ones I have checked so far.    Keep in mind as well that there are two layers of callsigns when it comes to combatant aircraft.  There are those indicating the squadron or unit, and then there are those "callsigns" that take the place of pilot names, as we have all seen and heard in movies such as Top Gun.     Of course you might hear someday that special one "Air Force One", which does fly over Nova Scotia at least a couple of times annually.

The tanker aircraft used are going to be either KC-10 or KC-135 aircraft operated by the USAF itself or by Air National Guard units but in some cases owned by the Air Force Reserve.    The ANG is a reserve organization organized as state units, and flown by part-time pilots and crew.   The pilots are often in civilian life airline pilots as the tanker aircraft are similar to airliners.  The closest AAR ANG unit to Nova Scotia is the 101st Air Refueling Wing based at Bangor International Airport and operating the KC135R Stratotanker.    Despite this being the closest unit to Nova Scotia, the tankers can be from other units, with the next closest being the 133d Air Refueling Squadron of the New Hampshire ANG, based at Pease ANGB near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.   This unit also uses the KC-135R.  Other units that may be employed include three from McGuire AFB in New Jersey: the 76th Air Refueling Squadron and 78th Air Refueling Squadron of the the Air Force Reserve, operating the KC-10 Extender.   This base also houses two squadrons of the New Jersey ANG using the KC-135R.    There is little point in continuing this list as there could well be other squadrons, from upstate New York, the midwest, the southeast and farther afield tasked to service AR-20.

This chart below at left shows the location of other AAR tracks located just to the west and south of AR-20 and the one at right shows the location and alignment of AR-20 itself.   In this case you are seeing the Northeast-bound version with the aircraft getting into position (altitude and heading) at bearing 250 and distance 82 nautical miles from the Yarmouth VOR (YQI).    At that point they are in Boston's area but they will soon pass into the Moncton area and be heard receiving clearance from Moncton on 123.9.    The actual refueling will be carried out over Nova Scotia, with the communications with Moncton moving on to 118.6 but also perhaps 135.3 along the way.   YQY is the Sydney VOR.   At the end of the track you will perhaps hear the aircraft receiving clearance to climb into high level airspace and they will then be heard on 132.75 or other high level Moncton frequencies.    The Southwest version of AR-20 will have the aircraft line up near Newfoundland, in Gander's airspace, and then proceed down the length of the province.    There may not be any need to use the full extent of this track, as these are maximum track lengths.

The chart at left, from "Jetcrafter", is the more current and therefore the two frequencies shown at right (337.4 and 339.4) could be disregarded in favour of the 341.75/349.7 pair, though some scanner listeners prefer to keep them programmed in.

 

Jetcrafter advises that his map is based on material at Special Use Airspace & Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace , where is also possible to learn ahead of time when AR-20 and other tracks will be active.    Quote from jetcrafter: 

"On the main page select the SUA Map (center section). It will open up to a current map of the CONUS.
On the right side, select the pull down menu for the Center you wish to look at. In this case, "Boston".
Then select the information you want to see and the times, altitudes, etc. When done, click on the
UPDATE button at the bottom of the right menu to update the map with your selected criteria. This
will open up to the Boston Center Sector and if active, you will see the Start of AR-20NE on the map.
You can zoom out to see the whole route over NS. If you click on the route, a new window will pop
up and show the scheduled times the route will be active. This is a nice resource but not always
correct. Many times AR-20NE will be active and it won't be shown on the map. Still, it's a good bet
that it will be active when displayed unless there is a problem and the refuelling is cancelled."

 

US AIR FORCE REFUELING SQUADRONS (EAST OF MISSISSIPPI) 2012

ARS WING SERVICE LOCATION A/C COMMENT NICKNAME CALL SIGN
765 459 ARW AFRE ANDREWS AFB KC-135      
132 101 ARW MEANG BANGOR ANGB 135R   MAINEIACS  
99 6 AMW/117 ARW USAF BIRMINGHAM ANGB KC-135      
106 117 ARW ALANG BIRMINGHAM ANGB KC-135      
72 434 ARW AFRE GRISSSOM ARB KC-135      
74 434 ARW AFRE GRISSSOM ARB KC-135      
63 927 ARW AFRE MACDILL AFB KC-135      
91 6 AMW USAF MACDILL AFB KC-135      
151 134 ARW TNANG MCGHEE-TYSON ANGB KC-135      
141 108 ARW NJANG MCGUIRE JB 135R BLUE FLASH    
150 108 ARW NJANG MCGUIRE JB 135R WHITE FLASH    
76 514 AMW AFRE MCGUIRE JB KC-10      
78 514 AMW AFRE MCGUIRE JB KC-10      
2 305 AMW USAF MCGUIRE JB KC-10      
32 305 AMW USAF MCGUIRE JB KC-10      
126 128 ARW WIANG MITCHELL ANGB KC-135      
64 157 ARW USAF PEASE ANGB 135R      
133 157 ARW NHANG PEASE ANGB 135R      
146 171 ARW PAANG PITTSBURGH ARS KC-135      
147 171 ARW PAANG PITTSBURGH ARS KC-135      
145 121 ARW OHANG RICKENBACKER ANGB KC-135      
166 121 ARW OHANG RICKENBACKER ANGB KC-135      
906 375 AMW/126 ARW USAF SCOTT AFB KC-135      
108 126 ARW ILANG SCOTT AFB KC-135      
171 127 ARW MIANG SELFRIDGE ANGB KC-135      
77 916 ARW AFRE SEYMOUR JOHNSON AFB KC-135      
911 6 AMW/916 ARW USAF SEYMOUR JOHNSON AFB KC-135      
174 185 ARW NEANG SIOUX GATEWAY ANGB KC-135