In January 2013, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Todd McDonald (Col ’91) and Capt. Evan Fillman (Engr ’08) deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. When they deployed from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, they had no idea they were both Wahoos.

About a month into their deployment, McDonald spotted Fillman wearing a UVA t-shirt at the gym, and the two realized their UVA connection.

United States Air Force Capt. Evan Fillman (left) and Lt. Col. Todd McDonald (right) pilot their KC-10 through the skies Photo courtesy of Evan Fillman

The two KC-10 pilots were not on the same crew for day-to-day operations, but shortly after their meeting in the gym, they were scheduled to fly a combat mission together. It was “sheer luck,” says Fillman, “a happy coincidence that we were able to fly together.”

The KC-10 is the military’s largest air-to-air refueling platform, a huge plane that transports cargo but is specially designed to run air to air refueling missions. “It has the ability to [carry and] deliver 40,000 gallons of jet fuel to coalition aircraft in a single sortie,” says Fillman.

A KC-10 refueling an F-16 Fighting Falcon
On a refueling mission, a KC-10 will often take off and loiter in a circular pattern at altitude, providing gas to the fighter jets that support the troops on the ground. The KC-10 crew, made up of two pilots, a flight engineer and a boom operator, work together to accomplish the mission. First, the jet that needs fuel stabilizes in close trail behind the tanker. Next, the KC-10 boom operator maneuvers the boom to effect contact with the receiver jet, thus allowing fuel transfer to begin. At this point, the KC-10 and the receiver jet are flying at the same speed. The KC-10 can also flip roles and become the receiver. It’s a complicated process that requires significant special training.

McDonald has been flying KC-10s for more than 20 years, and he happily passed along advice to Fillman, who has been flying KC-10s for 2 years. While in the air, they reminisced about the Grounds, Rugby Road, and Air Force ROTC Detachment 890, UVA’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“It was a great moment, especially for me as a young KC-10 pilot, to be able to fly with an extremely experienced pilot who also went to UVA,” says Fillman.