Highly-skilled dance performed at 25,000 feet
When most people think about skillful dancing, the thought of a couple moving gracefully across a dance floor comes to mind. If you are part of the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling crew, you're probably picturing two planes less than 50 feet apart bouncing around at 25,000 feet while trying to connect a refueling boom into what appears to be a golf ball-sized hole.
This well-choreographed, highly-skilled dance conducted by members of the 507th and 137th Air Refueling Wings aircrew is one way of trying to describe the air refueling process.
This important mission takes an enormous amount of education, training, manpower and focus to remain calm under intense pressure.
The pressure starts during pre-flight checks. Ground crews communicate back and forth with the pilots as they check off a long list of items.
Once airborne, the pilots communicate between Air Force and civilian air traffic control personnel for air space and altitude clearance. They then set the coordinates and altitude in preparation to meet the receiver (plane receiving fuel) at the pre-coordinated air refueling track.
When the planes are within 10 to 15 minutes of each other, the boom operator gets in position, takes out a check list and runs the refueling boom through a series of checks to ensure it's working properly.
Once the receiver moves to within 50 feet of the boom a series of light signals begins between the boom operator and the receiving pilot. This is when the dance begins and the pressure intensifies.
"Even the book says two planes flying in close proximity is inherently dangerous," said Master Sgt. Jeff Bass, a 465th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator, during a recent air refueling training of a 966th Airborne Air Control Squadron E-3 Sentry also out of Tinker Air Force Base. "It becomes even more tense when you get radio to radio communication and find out they are doing an extraordinary amount of training."
The pilot from the E-3 Sentry calls out two check rides, two instructor pilot upgrades and two new students. During this flight, each of the pilots goes through a series of training exercises while controlling the plane. They must move in close, move left and right. They move up closer to the tanker and move down further away from the tanker.
While pilots from the E-3 perform each of these tasks for qualifying and training purposes, Bass steadily calls out signals and moves the boom back and forth in an effort to make contact.
"The one-hour and forty-two minutes we were hooked up is an unusually long time for one boom to be on the controls," said Maj. Jeff Milburn, a KC-135 pilot from the 465th Air Refueling Squadron.
"It's very important for us to have a lot of trust and communication with the boom operator," Milburn added. "Bass is a very good and very experienced boom operator, but it's still a long time to be under that amount of pressure."
Milburn said everyone on both planes is counting on the boom operator.
"The pilots of the receiver are counting on the boom to make sure they are safely getting close enough for refueling and we are counting on the boom to make sure that the pilots of the receiver aren't being too erratic and getting us into a dangerous situation," he said.
Bass remains calm during the entire process. As each part of the training is finished, he calls out signals to the E-3 pilots, all the while communicating with Milburn and co-pilot 1st Lt. Jonathan Loper in the KC-135 465th Air Refueling Squadron.
"Each pilot flies a little differently, so it's important to see their tendencies, get them stabilized and then move them in for contact," Bass said. "I'm constantly trying to keep the boom moving ahead of the receptacle so that once they get good and stable, I can make contact with no issues."
Once both planes enter the air refueling track, the receiving E-3 comes up behind the KC-135. The boom operator calls out '50 feet and slightly low.' Once the plane is stable the boom operator brings the plane in with the forward light.
"One foot per second, coming down the middle," Bass says. "I'll then call out 10-foot increments and once the plane is stable, I'll try to make contact with the boom."
Meanwhile, the pilot of the receiving plane is looking to a fixed point trying to keep the aircraft steady on that point.
"With two planes moving, that can be some work," Bass added. "I have to try to keep the boom lined up and within certain parameters for it to be a safe operation. If he's moving too quickly towards one of those limits, I might trigger a disconnect."
The final task during this particular training is to actually off-load 50,000 gallons of fuel. There were two pilots on the E-3 who needed to take control of the plane, each connecting with the KC-135 for 25,000 gallons of fuel.
Off-loading fuel is also very challenging. While Bass is doing his part controlling the boom and keeping the planes connected during fuel transfer, Milburn and Loper are controlling the fuel off-load.
Once the refueling is finished, Bass calls foot markers out to 100 feet, to let the pilots of the E-3 and KC-135 know when everyone is clear. Then he takes a deep breath and shakes the blood back into his hands, grabs his checklist and secures the boom.
"I just don't think I could possibly do any other job in the Air Force," Bass says with a laugh.
Now at the controls, Loper takes the KC-135 back to Tinker Air Force Base for landing. People on the ground in the St. Louis area have no idea that a group of talented, well trained crew just pulled off a highly-skilled "dance" 25,000 feet over their heads.
Article by Senior Airman Mark Hybers
507th Air Refueling Wing