Taking flight: A day spent with the 168th refueling squadron

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FAIRBANKS — My Tuesday morning began as usual. Wake up, make coffee, feed the dog, head to work. What followed was not a normal day. 

As I drove toward the front gate of Eielson Air Force Base, rain slowly running down my windshield, I couldn’t really contain my excitement. Today I would be flying with the crew of a KC-135 Stratotanker used to refuel fighter jets mid-flight.

Senior Master Sgt. Paul Mann met me at the gate, and we drove through to the pre-flight briefing area. Upon arrival, I was greeted by Capt. Jeff Boeche and led to a classroom where I and a group of fellow journalists would be briefed on the afternoon’s flight plan. Waiting for us were government-issue leather flight jackets we could wear for the day and our headsets we would use to protect our ears and communicate with the crew during the flight.

The plan was wheels up at 1445L or 2:45 p.m. We drove toward the tarmac, chattering excitedly, our conversation scattered with colloquial “Top Gun” references. A fellow journalist asked if the actual act of refueling a jet was similar to the refueling level in the old Nintendo “Top Gun” video game. Master Sgt. Keith Rowan responded that the video game was much harder than real life, following his comment with a grin.

Air Refueling Mission

Two F-16 fighter jets fly along side a KC-135 Stratotanker before connected to the tanker to be refueled. Erin McGroarty/ News-Miner

The runway was shrouded in a thick cloud cover, dampening hopes of a clear flight. Nevertheless, we filed up the staircase, boarded the plane and following some quick exploration, took our seats in the troop seating areas along the walls. 

Rowan, who had briefed the group earlier, showed us to our troop seating offering seats in the cockpit during take off to two of us, an opportunity I leapt at. 

The plane was cold so I snuggled into my oversized leather flight jacket and pulled my hands into the sleeves with only a few fingers poking out to snap photos of the control board and captains during take off. The massive plane began hurtling down the runway before lifting off into the air. It still blows my mind how a massive hunk of metal carrying thousands of pounds of fuel can fly, but that’s science for you, I thought to myself.

Air Refueling Mission

Crew members and passengers prepare for take off inside a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. Erin McGroarty/ News-Miner

Capt. Bobby Pico, while flying the tanker, turned and gestured to a cord hanging on the back of his seat. I quickly plugged my headset in and immediately felt even more accepted into the experience. Pilots spoke to each other and control towers, exchanging call signs (ours was Titan 62) and flight jargon, much of which I didn’t understand. I sat there transfixed, watching the plane lift into the clouds. 

Boeche explained during the briefing that these massive flying gas stations have been in the air longer than many of the crew had been alive. Most KC-135 Stratotankers still in operation range from the years 1958-1962. The tanker we flew on was originally from 1962, updated and renovated to fit modern technological needs, with only a vintage style poster sporting a pin up girl in uniform advertising the U.S. Air Force as evidence of its previous life.

Following take off, I unbuckled my chest harness and walked with my cameras to the back of the plane where I could look out the window over the right wing. Soon I saw a formation of four F-16 fighter jets emerge from the clouds to fly next to us. These were our friends that we were helping out this afternoon. 

Rowan described the place of a KC-135 in the mix as the backbone that holds up the missions of the jets. Without the ability to refuel mid-mission, the jets would not be able to perform many of their assigned tasks for participate indefinitely in combat.

Air Refueling Mission

Capt. Julie Keeney reaches for the control panel in the cockpit of a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission Tuesday, Oct. 16. Erin McGroarty/ News-Miner

After watching the jets fly in formation for a few minutes, Rowan gestured for me to walk to the back of the plane where there were two hatches leading down the boom operating area. This is a small clear bubble in the back of the plane where the refueling boom is located and operated from. 

Air Refueling Mission

A Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker waits on the tarmac prior to a refueling mission Tuesday, Oct. 16. Erin McGroarty/News-Miner

I crawled down into the hatch and lay on my stomach next to Senior Airman Brandy Wiener who would be operating the refueling boom that day. Her head was stabilized on a padded chinrest, holding her head still as she controlled the boom with a joystick.

As an F-16 flew up below the tanker and stabilized, Wiener moved the boom toward the jet in delicate motions. Upon connection, the jet and the tanker flew in unison, connected in mid-air. The jet was so close I could see the pilot and read the jets serial number with my naked eye. The fueling process completed, the boom disconnected again slowly and the jet fell back slightly before diving to the left and away from the tanker. This process repeated four times for the entire formation.

Air Refueling Mission

A Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker waits on the tarmac prior to a refueling mission Tuesday, Oct. 16. Erin McGroarty/News-Miner

Following the refueling process, I returned to my troop seat and took a pause to eat a KIND bar and take a few swigs of water. 

Rowan had noted the tanker would be flying over mountains on the way back so I ate my snack quickly before returning to the cockpit to plug back into comms, gaze out the window and look down to see a snow capped mountain range doused in golden evening light welcoming us back home.

We lost sight of the mountains and the sun as we descended again through the thick cloud cover and made our way back down to the runway.

The sky had cleared and the sun was setting below the horizon as I looked past the two large engines hanging below the left wing. I turned away from the breathtaking view, shook the hands of the crew who had been so welcoming throughout the day, returned the flight jacket I wish I could have kept and left for home still reeling from my day spent in the sky. I guess this is what they mean when they refer to Cloud Nine.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMPolitics