A KC-135 Flight Through the Eyes of a Military Wife

By Jasmine Thomas

MacDill Air Force Base is hosting its annual AirFest show this Saturday and Sunday. As a preview for the event, members of the media were invited to a ride-along flight on a KC-135 Stratotanker as it completed a training refueling mission.

I boarded the massive plane as both a reporter and Air Force wife whose husband is training to become an aviator. I hoped the Airfest “preview flight” would give me a hint as to what my husband will be doing one day.

A glimpse inside the cockpit of the KC-135 Stratotanker flown by the MacDill Air Force Base 6th Air Mobility Wing.

A glimpse inside the cockpit of the KC-135 Stratotanker with co-pilot Capt. Joseph Brzozowske with the MacDill Air Force Base 6th Air Mobility Wing.

I stepped into the dark cylindrical-shaped cabin area. The walls of the plane were lined with benches where the news media would be sitting. Three small windows dotted each wall while a loud constant humming filled the cabin. Military aircraft clearly weren’t designed with comfort in mind.

“We’re not an airline. So, it’s not gonna be as smooth as you’re probably used to. So, I apologize for any bumps, but I’ll do what I can. But really when it comes down to it, it’s getting the mission done today,” said Capt. Matt Swee, the KC-135 pilot.

His warning about takeoff makes me a little nervous. I don’t fly often, so, I tend to be uneasy when it comes to that.

I sat in the cockpit right behind Swee and his co-pilot Capt. Joseph Brzozowske. Before takeoff I ask, “How long have you guys been flying together?” Their response?

It was their first time. That made me a little anxious. But as Swee explained.

“That’s extremely common. We don’t have hard crews. We’re all trained exactly the same. And so you could show up and fly with someone you’ve never flown before, and everyone does it exactly the same way. And that’s intentional, standardization,” Swee said.

Okay, that made me feel much better. I’m well aware of how the Air Force likes to keep things standardized, so to see it being put to use in the cockpit was definitely comforting.

Soon after, the pilots taxied us to the runway. The sky was dark and cloudy as it rained, making my stomach churn with anxiety. I thought, ‘not exactly favorable weather we’re about to takeoff into.’

Despite this, the two captains positioned us for take-off, rapidly gaining speed before we were finally airborne into a sea of thick clouds and rain.

A look at the A-10 Warthog refueling from the boom operator's point of view.

A look at the A-10 Warthog refueling from the boom operator’s point of view.

Even though it was their first time flying together, Swee was right. He and Brzozowske seemed to be in sync as they flipped switches and adjusted other instruments.

We finally broke free from the turbulence of takeoff and leveled off into a serene blue sky.

Wow. The view from the cockpit was breathtaking. And to think, this is what my husband will get to see and do as part of his job.

At this point, it was safe to unbuckle myself from the jump-seat and walk into the cabin.

This wasn’t so bad after all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stand and walk around without falling over. And it suddenly got really chilly. I realize, a little too late, I should’ve brought a thicker jacket as we soar above 30,000 feet.

Before long, I got over the temperature drop when I saw a fleet of A-10 Warthogs approach. Cameras in hand, I and more than a dozen journalists lined up to snap photos and record video.

I finally got my chance to see them. Four Warthogs lined up side by side, seeming to hover in the air next to us. They were so close I could see the pilots clearly from my window. And the aircraft’s signature artwork on the side, the eyes and grinning mouth full of teeth, was just too cool, reminiscent of World War II fighters.

A-10 Warthog as seen from the cabin of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

A-10 Warthog as seen from the cabin of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

What was even cooler was having the chance to lie on my stomach next to the boom operator, Master Sgt. Nancy Primm. One by one, each jet approached us from underneath and aligned themselves just perfectly. Primm already had the boom extended as she worked to align it with the jet before finally making the connection.

That’s no easy task, but Primm knows how to calm nervous receiver pilots.

“Whenever I have a receiver come up, and you can tell they’re nervous, you can hear the pitch in their voice, and they let the jet fly them a little bit, I put on what I call my librarian voice,” Primm said. “And that is ‘Mac four, left right’, you know whatever I have to do because the more calm I can project to him or her who’s flying, that tends to work.”

Swee explained the danger of refueling in-flight, but said they have to do whatever it takes to get the mission done. Training flights like this one prepare pilots for refueling during combat and other missions.

“The aircraft is actually closer than you’d expect, 10-13 feet actually. And it’s going to be moving around a lot more than one might think. And we can feel every single movement that’s made in the back, we can feel that up front,” Swee said. “It turns the entire aircraft. So we’re constantly compensating for every movement that the receiver pilot makes, and every movement that the boom operator makes with the boom as she’s flying that around too.”

Admission to the air show is free and open to the public. The KC-135 and A-10 are only two of the aircrafts that will be on display.

Personally, I can now be easy having a much better idea of what my husband will be doing and what our Air Force is capable of. This is one experience I won’t soon forget.

You can listen to Jasmine Thomas’ report on WUSF News.

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