An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Cheese, wine, tankers and lots and lots of coffee

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Levin Boland
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
'Twas 2:30 a.m., when all through the base

Not a plane was flying, not even a sim;

But the students are up, studying away

A French pilot in particular: Capt. Aurélien Leray.

The KC-135 Stratotanker training building is as dark as the sky outside, with the exception of room OFT-12, where Leray is studying.

Alongside Leray sits his training partner, U.S. Air Force Maj. Kris Person, sipping on hot coffee and hitting the books in an attempt to be fully awake before their simulated flight coming up.

"We're not getting used to it," said Leray. "One day it's at 2:30 a.m., the next it's at 4:30 a.m. We had a whole week when I had a sim every day at 2 a.m. It was harsh."

Leray is not unseasoned when it comes to the early morning mission briefs and the caffeine dependency in the wee hours of the morning. Leray has been doing this since 2006 under the command of the French air force.

"I started my flight training in 2006," said Leray. "I was awarded my wings in March 2008. Since then, I've logged around 1,700 hrs, among 1,200 hrs of them on the C-135FR, the French tanker."

Leray is also one of the first French pilots to travel to Altus AFB to train on the KC-135.

"Myself and two other senior pilots came here from France," said Leray. "It's very new for us and its very interesting to learn a lot of different things and a lot of different ways on how to use the aircraft. What could I possibly ask for, more than this?"

Leray and his wingman wrap up the mission brief and head to the KC-135 simulator, where the real training begins.

Inside the simulator the tall, lean pilot squeezes his way into the cockpit and begins his pre-flight checklists. Leray and Person speak continuously back and forth as if they had been working together their whole military careers. They learn from each other's diverse backgrounds and experiences to get the most out of their training and time together.

"I have benefited a lot because I come from a different background, flying wise," said Person. "Having Aurélien as my partner is a comforting feeling knowing that if I don't know the answer, he probably does because he is already qualified on the C-135. It is also valuable that our different experience and knowledge has allowed us to learn how each other's nations operate and the differences between the two."

For four hours, the sim rocks back and forth and banks from side to side. Finally the motion stops, the bridge comes down and the pilots climb out. The building is now alive, students are training everywhere and the sun is shining bright through the windows. Off to breakfast, and then the studying begins again.

Afterwards, Leray and Person still spend large parts of their day together. They read over their notes, practice flying procedures, and drink more coffee.

"We are spending time together to study the manuals and publications and rehearse in the cockpit familiarization trainer," said Leray. "We both know that optimum performance isn't just about knowledge and proficiency but comes also from good coordination and teamwork. That's why we're striving to mold ourselves as a crew as much as possible."

After 12 to 14 hours of training, these tanker pilots are out of gas and need to refuel. During their extra time, Leray and the other pilots hit the gym and then adventure out to see what the surrounding communities have to offer. Sadly, there is no place for great French cheese and wine in Altus, but Leray enjoys searching for the finest cuisines of Southwest Oklahoma. His favorite is only a few miles away.

"The specialty around here seems to be steaks," said Leray. "I went to the Backdoor restaurant in Blair and had one of the best steaks in my life. It was very good."

The French pilots have also had the chance to travel with other foreign military students as a part of the Field Studies Program. Every month, members of the 97th Training Squadron take the students out to surrounding states and parts of Oklahoma to visit historical attractions and learn about the American heritage.

"This is a part of the U.S. that I have never experienced before except maybe on television, so it's really nice to have it right in front of my eyes," said Leray. "So far we have been to the Wichita Battle Ground just north of here and I also went to the last Committee of 100 dinner in August."

The pilots are halfway done with their training. The days are going faster and they will graduate in the beginning of 2014. Leray is extremely grateful for the opportunity to train alongside Person and the U.S. Air Force.

"I am really amazed by the experience here," said Leray. "It is clear the instructors are really dedicated to pass on the knowledge to us. I am really surprised and grateful for everything, especially considering we are foreign military students."