Sunday, July 1, 2007
Refueling The Tacos
The Stratotanker Visits Davis-Monthan
At the rear end of the massive aircraft, I lie face down in the boom bay next to the boom operator, Master Sergeant Bob Derryberry, as the first F-16 approaches in trail at flight level 170. Calmly, he communicates on the radio with the pilots of the F-16 and our KC-135 while manipulating the boom with surgeon-like precision. “Each airplane has its own unique qualities, and when you add in individual styles for each receiver pilot, each session is always different,” explains Derryberry. “The most difficult part of air refueling would be at night. The depth perception is not the same as during the day. Throw in some turbulence, and it gets real sporty!” The Tacos prove to be a thirsty bunch, consuming 12,000 pounds of our fuel. (But it’s all good; we have another 58,000 pounds remaining.)
Back in the cockpit, I watch the other fighters as they fly off of us in wing position—they look so small, given our 130-foot wingspan—waiting their turn to receive fuel. “Give them a hand signal,” encourages the copilot, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Pennington, as I snap photographs. Despite the enormity of the KC-135 and the fierceness of the F-16s, using simple hand signals reminds me, more or less, of a typical air-to-air photo session. Well, maybe less, as I point forward, gesturing to the mysterious fighter pilot hidden behind his visor, racing alongside us at 315 KIAS. “Most of the fighters are not very stable at slower airspeeds,” explains Derryberry. “We speed up to help them maintain better control. When we drag fighters across an ocean, we speed up for the refuel and then slow down to cruise.”
After the mission is complete and the Tacos are full, they break out of formation, and we make our way northeast toward Rickenbacker International Airport, in Columbus, Ohio. After climbing to flight level 350, we cruise over the middle of America. The vastness of the aircraft’s cargo deck, which can hold up to 83,000 pounds and 37 passengers, makes our giant tanker seem that much larger. I return to the boom bay, where I lay, staring straight down through this window above earth, and for a few moments, there’s a sensation of floating.
Strong crosswinds prevail at Rickenbacker, and the KC-135 creaks and moans some more during the descent into the cold Ohio snow—Arizona’s desert skies are now just a distant memory. “Landings are easy,” remarks Pennington coolly, but I’m not so sure, and sitting toward the back of the cargo deck, it’s clear he works the rudder hard.
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