February 3, 2021

All in a Day’s Work | Gavin Owens, U.S. Air Force Aircraft Commander: “Never Been Scared in a Plane”

AIRCRAFT COMMANDER: Gavin Owens, U.S. Air Force captain and Princeton resident, shows off the KC-10 aerial refueling tanker aircraft he pilots out of McGuire Air Force Base on missions supporting military planes in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. (Photo courtesy of Gavin Owen)

By Donald Gilpin

For many Princeton residents, “a day’s work,” at least before the pandemic, might have involved significant travel, perhaps a long commute to New York or Philadelphia, maybe even a long road trip out of the area.

But in a typical day’s work, Gavin Owens, a U.S. Air Force captain and aircraft commander, often finds himself flying across the Atlantic, and maybe even returning to his apartment in downtown Princeton on the same day.

In the Air Force since 2014 after graduating from the U.S. Air Force  Academy in Colorado Springs with a degree in systems engineering management, Owens, 28, is currently based at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County, from where he pilots a KC-10 aerial refueling tanker, a military version of the DC-10 airliner.

Owens described his job: “There’s a crew of four. I’m the pilot in one of the front two seats of the plane, manipulating the controls. There are two pilots up front and a flight engineer who monitors all the systems. He calls out the steps on his check list, and the crew members respond as they accomplish those items. The last crew member is the boom operator.”

MID-AIR REFUELING: The KC-10 refueling plane, piloted by Princeton resident U.S. Air Force Captain Gavin Owens, stretches out its refueling boom to fill up an F-15 Eagle tactical fighter aircraft at about 25,000 feet altitude. (Photo courtesy of Gavin Owens)

He continued, “The KC-10 offloads fuel to other aircraft. In the back of the plane there is a boom — think of a gas pump at a fuel station. The boom operator controls the stick that sends the gas to other planes.”

Another plane comes up behind the KC-10, and the boom operator directs the boom into the other plane’s receiving port.  “It’s pretty neat,” said Owens. “You see some cool stuff back there, and you’re only 20 feet from the other plane. The two planes are really touching each other.”   

The amount of gas delivered and the refueling time depend on the plane. Often the planes refueling are small fighter jets that don’t carry much gas and can be refueled in about a minute. Cargo aircraft and bombers could take up to half an hour. Owens’ KC-10 carries about 53,000 gallons of fuel and can deliver about 1,000 gallons per minute, though some planes can’t take that much fuel that fast. 

With the planes traveling at 300 miles per hour within 20 feet of each other, Owens emphasized the need for caution and predictability. “They teach you to be predictable so the guy behind you knows what to expect and is not surprised,” Owens said. “You stay at one speed and try to fly straight, or they may give you a big block of air space, and you have to keep an easy turn so they can predict it.”

Owens pointed out that many U.S. Air Force planes don’t have the range to complete long trips without refueling. Small fighter jets are designed to fly in a relatively small radius around their base. “One of the things we do is to take fighter aircraft back and forth across the Atlantic or the Pacific,” he said. “We’ll take off and we’ll have a small group of fighters that go with us across the ocean for any number of reasons. They could be coming to help Germany or the United Kingdom or going to the Middle East.” 

Occasionally trips for Owens involve a few days spent overseas, but sometimes the KC-10 accompanies other aircraft only part way to their destination before returning to McGuire after a day-long trip. 

He added, “Sometimes we’re not taking them anywhere. We’re just providing fuel so they can do training. We’ll provide training to aircraft, help them out, anywhere in the United States for the Air Force or the Navy.

On the agenda for this week was a training mission, but Owens described the scheduling as “very fluid. We’ll see.” In addition to a range of contingencies within the Air Force, and uncertainties of weather, the pandemic has limited overseas missions during the past year.

From Montana to Princeton

Owens grew up and completed high school in McAllister, Montana. His father had been an Air Force pilot, flying an aerial refueling aircraft, “but my father provided less pressure than you’d expect,” Owens said. His father has retired from the Air Force and is now a rancher in Montana.

After high school graduation, Owens decided to go to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He hadn’t decided he wanted to be a pilot, but was drawn by the prospect of a high quality education.

Before his graduation in 2014 he considered different options for career fields. “To me it seemed very logical,” he said. “I looked at them all and I saw pilot, and that seemed to me to be the most exciting and fun.”

He described his college experience as “a very rigorous core education,” with some aviation classes, particularly during the summers, “but it wasn’t all airplane stuff.”

After graduation, the “airplane stuff” moved into high gear for Owens as he began his training as a pilot. “After the academy I was sent to a pilot training base in Mississippi, where the entire focus was learning to fly airplanes,” though he did mention the great food and the “really down-home and friendly people” in Mississippi.

After a year and a half of flight training in Mississippi he was sent to Ramstein Air Base in Germany southwest of Frankfurt fly the C-21A aircraft, the equivalent of a Learjet 35 carrying up to eight passengers on VIP and air ambulance missions throughout Europe.   

In Germany for the next three years, Owens acquired a taste for travel and exploring different cultures. “We were only 45 minutes from the border of France, so we could head over to France for dinner, or catch a ride up to Belgium or the Netherlands for the weekend. I enjoyed that quite a bit.”

Owens added that he had visited every country in Europe except for Slovakia. “I took the opportunity when I was there to see everything that I could.” He flew to most of the countries on his assignments as C-21A pilot, then often traveled back to visit when he was on leave.

He described some of the air ambulance flights as the most memorable parts of his career so far, “making a difference when you pick up someone who really needs help.” On a number of occasions Owens transported injured military personnel or others to the large American hospital at the Ramstein air base, headquarters for the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

“I’d fly into those countries and only be there for an hour or two — long enough to pick up a patient or drop off a general or something like that. But the runways of airports start to look the same when you see a lot of them,” he said. “It’s only when you get off the base that you get to see the local culture.”

And it was the local culture that drew Owens to live in Princeton. Sent from Germany to McGuire in September 2019 for what is likely to be at least a three-year stint, Owens considered where he wanted to live. “You can live on the base, but I prefer it here, and I was willing to take the drive [about 45 minutes each way].”

Local Attractions

Many of his colleagues chose to live in Philadelphia, but Princeton appealed to Owens for a number of reasons. He emphasized the allure of the trails in the area and the attractions of downtown Princeton.

“I was looking at different areas I might want to live in,” he said, “and I looked at different neighborhoods and towns. I’m a big runner and cyclist, so Princeton was a much better option for me than living in Philadelphia or anywhere else in Central or South Jersey.”

A collegiate cross country runner at AFA, Owens runs about four or five miles every morning, eight to ten miles on Saturdays and Sundays. His preferred route takes him around the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve. For bike riding, he heads north and west into the Sourland Mountains beyond Hopewell and towards Lambertville for 40- to 50-mile rides on weekends.

Though he does look forward to returning to visit his favorite places in Europe and to spend some time getting to know Asia, Owens emphasized the local New Jersey attractions.

“Often the experiences around us are overlooked,” he said. “I like taking a chance on visiting places nearby and throughout the Northeast. In Princeton I like to get coffee at Sakrid or Rojo’s or Small World, and I like to go over to Lambertville and walk through the antique markets or to Terhune Orchards to get apple cider.” 

He continued, “Whenever anyone comes to visit me I take them on a walk along the D&R Canal. I also like to run down there. You see people rowing on Lake Carnegie. And I like just walking through the Princeton campus as well. It reminds me a bit of some of the Gothic architecture of Europe.  I think it’s great.”

In-Flight Troubleshooting

Piloting a huge KC-10 aircraft would seem to be a daunting task for anyone, no matter how experienced, but Owens says that there is no fear factor. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been scared in a plane,” he said. “I’m sure plenty of people get scared, but to me it’s like driving, where you have to react. It’s not about registering an emotional response, at least until there’s time to sit down and think about it afterwards.  It’s more like: ‘What do I have to do next to keep things moving?’

He continued, “If something’s going wrong with the plane or there’s bad weather to deal with, you have to analyze and see what the next step is that you have to take.”  He emphasized the importance of the crew being there to work through the process as a team.

Two weeks ago, Owens related, he faced what was probably the worst problem he’d ever encountered in a plane, when he was out over the Atlantic and the plane lost all of the hydraulic fluid in one of the hydraulic systems. He had to turn the plane around and head it back to McGuire.

“I really wasn’t afraid at the time,” he said. “We had all these check lists that we went through and we had the full crew with everybody around to discuss: ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to mitigate this risk or that risk?’”

The plane was able to operate on the remaining two hydraulic systems, and they landed it successfully at McGuire, stopping abruptly on the runway, which was immediately shut down. The plane could not turn and it had to be towed off the runway — “very benign for it being a full hydraulic system that failed,” he said.  If another system had also failed while they were over the Atlantic, Owens noted, “We could have had a big problem.”

Owens emphasized the importance of human connections in his work in the Air Force. “The military community is closely knit,” he said. “That’s what I appreciate the most. You go out and see a lot of the world, and having people to commiserate and see it with you is one of the most important things. Our crew members are definitely a team, with a common experience and a common goal.”

Owens expects to continue in his career as an Air Force pilot for quite a while. The Air Force will soon be replacing the KC-10 airplane, and Owens’ job and location could change accordingly. After the requisite 20 years in the Air Force before retirement, another career might follow, maybe still flying big planes, and after that he could eventually be heading back to Montana, following the footsteps of his father. 

“I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing after this plane goes away and the plane after that. Those changes could continue to affect my Air Force career, but I think I’ll end up in Montana, ranching in the long-term future.”