KC-135 Stratotanker Refueling Mission

Chris Gnagi invited me on a “Civic Leader” flight out at Forbes Field today. (Why he thinks I’m a civic leader is a whole other discussion.) Got to the gate at 7:30, inside the auditorium by 7:45. At 8 am, the briefing started. After some time on the history of the National Guard, the actual flight crew walked us through the mission.

We were going to fly down to Springfield then over to Oklahoma City then back to refuel and do training runs with a B-52 out of Barksdale AFB (LA). The KC-135 that we were using today was built in 1957 and can fly halfway around the world before needing to refuel. They can refuel anything military and NATO. No helicopters and no commercial airlines.

Chris got me in the cockpit for takeoff. Lots of communication between pilots, cargo crew, ground crew, and tower. Lots of knob twisting and checklists. Found out there is triple redundancy on the engines and power generators. That’s good to know.

Each engine has to be spun by air pressure first. As they gain speed, fuel is pumped to them and is ignited. Each engine does this independently. I feel the plane pop a bit with each engine coming up to speed. Those quick take-offs in the movies that let the good guy get away? I don’t think that is happening with this plane.

Pilot is getting last minute instructions as to what runaway to use for takeoff, what elevation and climb he needs to take. Then he has to report who is on board. “18 souls onboard.” 14 passengers, 4 crew but they still say – “souls” when reporting how many people. I like that.

Wylie 31 Heavy is our call sign. Rogue 07 (Zero-Seven) is the B-52 we are refueling. As we taxi to takeoff we got confirmation that Rogue 07 is airborne.

The first overwhelming feeling is takeoff. 4 huge engines just lifting this beast off the ground. All the while there is constant conversation on the radio – altitude, tower control, bearing information. It’s multitasking on steroids. It feels much like a commercial airline take off except for one major difference – the noise. It’s loud and I’m thankful for the headset.

About 10 seconds after lifting off there is a glitch. The landing gear. There was the big bright light on the lever that indicated that not all the wheels were up. Pilot calls back to cargo for visual inspection. Cargo tells us that he can see the wheels and that they are in retracted but we have no confirmation that the they are locked in place.

During this whole time, the tower is giving instructions as to heading and altitude and speed and climb rate. There is quite a bit of chatter. We are told the nearest plane to us is a Cessna about 6 miles away at 6500 feet.

We get to 4,000 ft and the pilot goes “around the horn” on recycling the landing gear. This means every crew member says yes/no on whether to re-engage the landing gear then pulling it back up. All say yes. The pilot tells tower what is going on. The landing gear lever is dropped and I can feel the plane start dragging. It’s like someone has hit the brakes. The wait a few seconds then pop the lever back up. All lights go dark. In this case that is a good thing because that means the gear is up and locked in place. All good, off to refuel.

We are at 6k ft and are clear to go to 23,000. It’s pretty foggy. Heavy cloud cover. Can’t see anything. Until we get to 23,000. Then the sun pokes thru and you can literally feel it warm the plane.

On radar we can see these white dots with numbers on it. +7 means that plane is 7, 000 feet higher than we are. -4 means 4,000 feet lower.

We get a call – Rogue 07 is inbound, 1 mile away. They will be coming up on our right wing. Gnagi gives me a nod to head back to the boom. I drop my headset off and am immediately overwhelmed by the noise. It is loud. The only way to really communicate with one another is screaming.

I make my way down the cargo bay, grab an airmask to wear in case the cabin loses air pressure and some much needed ear plugs. You can see here that they come with simple instructions. This mask comes with 5 minutes of oxygen. (That’s what the label says.) I guess that means if the pressure goes, they’ve got 5 minutes to get to a lower altitude.

I can see the B-52 off our wing and it doesn’t look that big. In the galley pics below, if you look closely it’s just underneath the wing. Of course…that is one mile away. He’s about to get a lot closer.

The boom operator lays down on this couch and has both feet and hand controls over the boom. There is an extension that comes out and actually connects with the plane. There is also some play with the boom – up/down and right/left.

There is close to 80,000 lbs of fuel in this bird. (I think that is the number…it was pretty loud in the plane so don’t quote me on that.) It’s located in the wings and under the fuselage where most aircraft put luggage. Gravity does most of the work moving the fuel around. Less mechanical dependency, less mechanical failure. Chris tells me that it’s possible to send fuel from the receiver plane to the KC-135 but not preferred. In fact, he said only in extreme emergencies would they even attempt it.

It’s hard to describe the feeling laying down watching a B-52 fly right up underneath you. So I shot some footage with my iPhone instead. What a ride!!!

NOTE: The footage is in HD and looks incredible but is taking a ridiculous long time to upload. So I’m working on a faster process but the video is coming. And it’s pretty incredible. I’ll update it again on Twitter when it’s finished. In the meantime, enjoy the pics.

Video is done and here it is. Be sure to watch it in HD. Pretty awesome.


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