COLUMBUS -- You know the old math problem: A KC-135 Stratotanker leaves Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base at 10:30 a.m., traveling at 320 mph; while a C-17 Globemaster III leaves Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina at 11 a.m., traveling at 450 mph.
What time do the two enormous aircraft meet for an air-to-air refueling exercise?
The answer, plotted meticulously by KC-135 pilot Lt. Col. Eric Kaufman and first officer Capt. Ryan Roy, along with loadmasters and Mst. Sgts. David Sorrell and Ryan Dunn, was around 12:30 p.m. June 22, in fair skies over central Ohio.
In an aerial ballet that lasted about a half-hour, the C-17 and KC-135 adagioed at 21,000 feet, the much larger C-17 creeping toward the refueling boom extending from the back of the tanker, foot by careful foot until the boom connected. A mere 32 feet separated the aircraft as they matched airspeeds somewhere north of 300 mph.
"I love my job," Sorrell said from the back of the aircraft, laying on his stomach to steer the refueling boom.
Normally, JP-8 fuel would have been pumped into the C-17 at a rate of 6,800 pounds per minute, filling the behemoth's 245,000-pound gas tank in about 20 minutes.
But today, on board this 1963-model KC-135 (one of 12 tankers based at the Ohio Air National Guard's 121st Air Refueling Wing at Rickenbacker), no gas was passed during this training mission.
"You flew on the oldest aircraft in the USAF inventory," said Col. Mark "Kahuna" Auer, a former fighter pilot and commanding officer of the 121st ARW. "If your plane were a car, you'd have had a historic license plate on it."
Auer briefed a room filled with about a dozen Ohio journalists after the refueling mission, an outreach to the media from the 121st Air Refueling Wing "to let people know we're here."
"You know the saying, 'The sun never sets on the British Empire?' Well, I will tell you that the sons and daughters of this state are very busy," Auer said. "And the sun never sets on the Ohio National Guard."
Funded by about $630 million from the federal government and close to $9 million from the state, the brass in the ONG say its services are a bargain for the state -- and an irreplaceable commodity for the country and world.
"We are truly an operational force today," said Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr., commander of the Ohio Army National Guard. "We've had to reinvent who we are to deal with the current global situation ... the pace of a modern battlefield is absolutely breathtaking."
The ONG's reach in the state is "beyond sand bags and emergency situations," Harris added, as many of the 16,000 Ohio National Guard men and women live and work in local communities, placing their intellectual stamp and learned skills on local business and industry. There are about 11,500 service members in the Ohio Army National Guard, and about 4,500 in the Ohio Air National Guard.
"Imagine when these adaptable and agile thinkers are back in your communities, living and working there," Harris said June 22.
Nationally, the ONG was one of the first guards -- there are 54 national guards in the 50 states, District of Columbia and three territories -- to reach the devastation in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, and continued to be one of the most impactful groups on scene in the wake of the disaster.
The tankers and fighters of the ONG's four air wings (Columbus, Mansfield, Springfield and Toledo) criss-cross much of the country in their jurisdictional "tracks," or spheres of influence, sometimes offering a flying gas station and sometimes responding to an airliner or unknown contact that is not obeying FAA commands.
"Those F-16s [in Toledo] are always busy," Harris said.
And globally, the ONG -- the guard with the second-largest air wing (only New York has a larger air guard) and fifth-largest army guard -- has been deployed as often as any guard in the nation, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and lesser known corners of the world.
"Most NATO countries don't have [air-to-air] refueling capabilities," Harris said. "And that's where the Ohio National Guard comes in."
Harris continued about the importance of NATO and global alliances, as the ONG recently conducted training exercises with the militaries of Serbia and Hungary.
"In that part of the world, it really is about trust," he said. "Russian aggression is at levels we have not seen in years ... and long-term partnerships are critical."
The virtues of partnership and trust were clearly evident at 21,000 feet over central Ohio, as the two aircraft completed their aerial dance. The C-17 headed back to Charleston AFB, while the KC-135 headed back to "Rick."
Auer quoted British author James Allen at the conclusion of his briefing, thanking the gathered messengers for spreading the word about what Harris called "National Guard 4.0."
"No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks," Auer said. "This is your guard. I tell this story because it's your story. It's the people in your communities ... it's in the marrow of our bones."
Consider the message delivered, and mission accomplished, colonel.