This week, Fairchild Air Force Base celebrated the 64th anniversary of the first flight of the KC-135 tanker. That’s the plane that’s been housed at the base for more than 60 years.
The tanker’s job is to refuel other planes in flight so they don’t have to take the time to land. The person who sits in the tanker’s tail - the boom operator - is responsible for ensuring that the refueling is done safely.
The boom is the long, slender arm that slowly lowers from the back of the KC-135. It’s a hard-shelled hose that serves as the conduit between one of the plane’s 10 fuel tanks and the gas tank in the receiving aircraft.
When it’s time to fill up, Senior Airman Nicholas Selly says the plane that’s to receive the fuel approaches the back of the tanker. It gets as close as 50 feet. The boom operator coordinates that delicate dance between the two aircraft.
“Once the receiver gets close, I would take over the radios and talk to them every step of the way. And then we have gauges, telling us where the boom is at, if they’re too high, too low, too close, too far out. Based off that I’ll give them a correction on where they need to move to to stay inside, we call it the envelope, of where the receiver needs to be," he said.
The receiving plane has the responsibility for getting exactly where it needs to be. At that point, Selly has a birds-eye view and is sometimes uncomfortably close to the approaching aircraft.
“Basically we have to take our own responsibility for ignoring FAA rules because FAA won’t allow you that close," Selly said. "There have been numerous times when I thought something was going to break, that someone was going to run into us. But that’s what we train for.”
The boom allows the KC-135 to refuel U.S. Air Force planes. The tanker also has a second refueling option, for U.S. Navy and NATO planes.
Airman First Class Dalton Eggleston and First Lieutenant Ryan D’Auteuil escort me to the back of a parked KC-135. The plane’s huge tail hangs over us. D’Auteuil directs my attention to a feature toward the end of the right wing. He calls it a mipper, or a multi-point refueling system.
“You can see there’s kind of a basket on the end of it. Those come out on a long tube and Navy and foreign aircraft don’t use what we call a receiving receptacle, so we put the boom into a receptacle. They actually have one that pops out and they have to fly it into the drogue," he said.
The drogue is the cone-shaped basket to which D’Auteuil referred. Eggleston says it is where the receiving aircraft inserts its own hose.
“Really, with that, they’re doing all the work," he said.
“Our job, essentially, is to make sure that that will give them gas. We can’t guide them, direct them. That’s all on them to be able to do that," D'Auteuil said.
“Pretty much, they just fly their airplane. It’s pretty simple. It’s really nice," Eggleston said.
Nice for the tanker, maybe. But D’Auteuil says it’s a nerve wracking way for Navy planes to fill up.
“The drogue is notoriously difficult to refuel off. They’ve nicknamed it the ‘Iron Maiden,'" he said.
The boom operator isn’t a pilot, but like learning how to fly, learning how to manipulate the boom and work with other aircraft is one that takes months of study.
“You start out in a simulator. You do multiple simulators of how to refuel and how to back the pilots on all the gauges up front and, after that, you take about a dozen flights or so with an instructor and after that you get to fly on your own," he said.
And like pilots, boom operators are sent out on long deployments. Dalton Eggleston says he’s looking forward to his first stint in a few months.