Ride Along during an Air Force KC-135 Refueling Mission

Off the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

Off the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

When you’re about to run out of gas in your car, you don’t think too much about pulling into the closest station to fill up.  The process is a bit more complicated if you’re a pilot flying an F-16 Thunderbird with the United States Air Force. That requires an airborne filling station.

For our series Off The Base, we went on a refueling mission in a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base.

 

One of the 16 Eisenhower-era planes left MacDill on an afternoon in early October, and flew almost all the way to Louisiana to meet up with seven F-16 Thunderbirds on their way to an air show in Melbourne.

According to Capt. Robert Jurgensmeier,  these types of refueling mission happen all over the United States, and the world.

“Every day everybody needs training because we always have to stay ready for whenever we get the call, so pretty much every day we’ll go out and do refueling with everybody all over the country, just to stay good at what we do,” Jurgensmeier said.

A reporter lays next to the boom operator to get a photograph.

A reporter lays next to the boom operator to get a photograph.

In the back of the jet, the boom operator lays on his stomach and controls the boom that juts out of the back of the Stratotanker and connects with the Thunderbird.

“They get really close, I couldn’t give you an actual distance,” Jurgensmeier said. “I don’t know what their books are and how close they fly, but I would say somewhere 20 feet, 30 feet maybe.”

When he has a full tank, the Thunderbird pilot gives a wave, and then drops out of view. All of this happened as the Stratotanker flew at around 345 knots, or about 500 miles per hour, according to Jurgensmeier.

The seven F-16 Thunderbirds received about 30,000 pounds of fuel.

“Then they flew in formation back with us and departed somewhere around Seminole, and headed toward Melbourne, and we continued back home to MacDill,” Jergensmeier said.

In 2013, when MacDill lost a bid for new KC-46 tankers, military officials said the older, KC-135s will remain a priority at the base.

Inside the KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

Inside the KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission.

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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.

MacDill Facing Cuts in People, Flight-Time and Facilities

Col.  Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill Air Force Base and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill Air Force Base and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

The home to U-S Central Command, U-S Special Operations Command and the 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill Air Force Base, is readying for mandatory civilian furloughs, reduced flight time and postponed building projects.

If sequestration – Congress’ mandatory budget cuts – goes into effect Friday, no state or facility will escape the shockwave.

Most of the 3,000 civilian workers at MacDill Air Force Base will essentially take a 20 percent cut in pay. Sequestration mandates that they take a weekly, one-day furlough beginning in late April through September.

Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill and the 6th Air Mobility Wing, employs about 1,000 of those civilians at MacDill.

“The sense of urgency goes up March 1st since the fiscal year is half over,” DeThomas said. “A 10 percent cut over a 12 month period is not so bad, but when you do it in a short time like we’re about to face it has a much more dramatic impact.”

In addition to civilian furloughs, more than $6 million in maintenance and construction projects on base will be postponed and flying hours for the 16 KC-135 refueling tankers and three Gulf Stream jets will be cut 20 percent.

DeThomas was even more certain about the fate of MacDill’s Air Fest scheduled the weekend of April 6th and 7th.

“The Air Fest is pretty close to being canceled. We’re not officially there yet, but actually very close,” DeThomas said late Friday. “The money that we’ve committed already was minimal up to this point. Our next big outlay of funds would be March 5th.”

But prior to that date, DeThomas anticipates the Air Force will cancel all upcoming air shows as part of it’s mandate to cut $20 billion by the end of the current fiscal year.

Air Force Assigns New KC-46 Tankers, None East of Kansas

KC-46 tanker Photo Credit: Air Force.mil

KC-46 tanker Photo Credit: Air Force.mil

The Air Force evaluated 54 active sites to become home to the new KC-46 tankers. Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa announced in a late Wednesday afternoon release that her hometown MacDill Air Force Base lost its bid for the new planes.

In fact, no Air Force base east of Kansas received any of the new KC-46 tankers.

Instead, the Air Force is assigning the new tankers to active duty bases in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kansas and Washington State.

However, five Air National Guard bases have been selected for the first KC-46 tankers: Forbes Air Guard Station, Kan.; Joint-Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Pease Air Guard Station, N.H.; Pittsburgh International Airport Air Guard Station, Pa.; and Rickenbacker Air Guard Station, Ohio.

MacDill is home to the 6th Air Mobility Wing which flies an aging fleet of KC-135 refueling Stratotankers.

Castor, members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders lobbied for the new planes to be based at MacDill

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told Castor during a phone call that the KC-135 tankers like the ones based in Tampa will remain an Air Force priority for decades.

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