Thrills in the sky
As the turbofans spun and the jets of the refueling plane roared to life on the tarmac at Beale Air Force Base on Thursday morning, I adjusted my earplugs and held on to my seat.
I was about to take the ride of a lifetime and join the crew of a KC-135 Stratotanker for a mid-air refueling exercise with the Air Force Thunderbirds over Nevada skies.
The 940th Air Refueling Wing at Beale had invited a group of local news hounds to participate in this golden opportunity – to observe a technologically advanced military feat and get a bird’s eye view of the Thunderbirds, the Air Force’s demonstration flight team that performs flashy precision maneuvers at air shows around the world.
I hadn’t felt so giddy since I was 9, when I was being strapped into the Space Mountain ride at Disney World.
As the plane accelerated down the runway, I realized that commercial flights, with their lack of elbow room and insulated cabins, take the thrill out of flying.
In the bare-bones upper deck of the KC-135, the rumble of engines and rattling equipment added to the excitement. We all leaned sideways as the G-force kicked in.
The crew told us that the refueling plane can transport engines and cargo or, in a pinch, be reconfigured into a flying field hospital. In the back of the cabin, which is about the size of two bocce courts, stretchers and medical equipment were strapped to the walls.
Once we reached our cruising altitude of about 21,000 feet in clear blue skies, the fun began. Our route took us over Lake Tahoe to our rendezvous with the Thunderbirds above a military area in Nevada.
With no “fasten seat belts” sign to keep us tethered, we were free to roam about the plane and look over the shoulders of the two pilots.
I spoke with crew members Major Summer Fields and 1st Lt. Amanda Naylor, Air Force reservists who have served on overseas missions, including recent assignments in Turkey.
While stationed in Turkey, the 940th supported troops in Iraq by refueling fighters and cargo airplanes in the air, eliminating the need for refueling convoys on the ground, where troops are in danger of attacks by insurgents.
According the 940th’s commander, Col. Albert Reif, 25,000 of the Air Force’s 35,000 deployed airmen are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to the 940th’s efforts, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale operates two Global Hawk squadrons. These unmanned planes take off from the base and are controlled remotely as they fly over Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 20 minutes after taking in the view of Lake Tahoe from the small window on the side of the plane, I got word that the Thunderbirds were approaching.
Each journalist was going to get a turn in the “boom pod,” as the refueling cockpit in the lower deck at the rear of the plane is called, to watch a Thunderbird hook up to the refueling boom and gas up.
The boom operator lies on his stomach on a cushion and operates the controls while staring out an oblong, rear-facing window. The journalists were allowed to lie on observation cushions on either side of the boom operator and peer over his shoulder at the operations below.
My heart raced when I saw seven Thunderbirds pull up in flying formation behind the plane. The geometry of their pattern and the sleek poetry of their aerodynamic, red, white and blue-striped bodies would make a fan out of anybody.
According to Air Force literature, these fighter planes can withstand up to nine Gs – nine times the force of gravity – and can fly 500 miles to a target before returning home.
You would think that it would be stressful trying to fit a gas nozzle into a jet in mid-air, but Staff Sgt. Jason Tyler lined up the boom to the F-16’s gas tanks as fluidly as you or I might stick the gas nozzle into our cars at the local station.
Tyler told me that he was in radio contact with the Thunderbird pilots and coordinated with them using lights and signals. Once a pilot lined up his F-16 beneath the tail of the KC-135, Tyler had a narrow envelope to work with as he lowered the fuel boom. Weather conditions or turbulence can make the hookup more difficult, he said.
“It takes vigilance,” Tyler told me, “but once you get a comfort zone, after a lot of practice, it’s not too bad.”
After the refueling exercise, the pilot announced that he was taking us for a spin to Yosemite. Imagine that! It would be my first visit to the park, albeit from 21,000 feet.
As soon as I got the news, I slithered back down to the now-empty boom pod and took the boom operator’s center cushion. The cushions on either side of me were soon filled by a photographer and a staff member from the 940th. None of us could believe our good fortune as we gaped at the scenery.
Within half an hour I was looking down at Mono Lake. Soon we were circling over Half Dome. I got my first glimpse of the park’s great valley and lush meadows before we headed back to Beale.
Like I said, it was the ride of a lifetime.
To contact Staff Writer Jill Bauerle, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4219.
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