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Boom operators provide fuel for warfighters

by Tech. Sgt. Gino Mattorano
380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

1/20/2005 - SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- Some Airmen spend their work days in office cubicles, but a select group of enlisted fliers work in an "office" 25,000 feet in the air while traveling 500 mph.

Boom operators from the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, do not push papers; instead, they push fuel to combat aircraft engaged in the war on terrorism over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Boom operators are an essential element of air refueling crews that fly KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders, conducting air-refueling operations for fighter, bomber, combat support and mobility forces, officials said.

A midair rendezvous between two aircraft requires precise coordination and constant communication. The aircraft must be as close as 40 feet from one another to establish a connection.

"Our pilots talk to the receiver aircraft to bring them within a mile of our tanker," said Senior Airman Michael Stahl, a KC-135 boom operator with the 908th EARS. "From that point, (I) take over communication with the receiver aircraft and guide (the pilot) into position for in-flight refueling."

Once the receiver aircraft is in position behind the tanker, the boomer literally "flies" the refueling boom to the aircraft to make the refueling connection.

"(I) have to guide the boom to the receiver aircraft's refueling receptacle," Airman Stahl said. "Once we've made contact, we begin the fuel transfer process and monitor the connection to make sure the operation proceeds smoothly. If necessary, we can execute aircraft separation to prevent a midair collision, or when refueling is complete."

Using the refueling boom, or a hose and basket assembly for NATO aircraft, boom operators can refuel as many as 30 aircraft during a refueling mission, depending on aircraft configuration, mission requirements and the amount of fuel available.

The KC-135 can carry up to 200,000 pounds of fuel and, depending on fuel storage configuration, 83,000 pounds of cargo. A much larger aircraft, the KC-10 has the ability to carry up to 350,000 pounds of fuel, or it can carry up to 170,000 pounds of cargo and up to 75 people.

A typical day for a boom operator begins three hours before the scheduled flight time with mission briefings and preflight checks of the aircraft, which, when combined with the flight time, can make for long days.

"Flights can last anywhere from 5 to 14 hours," said Senior Airman Michael Whitehead, a 908th EARS KC-10 boom operator. "It just depends on the requirements of the mission and the number of aircraft we're scheduled to refuel."

Control of such an important task is a huge responsibility, but boom operators receive nearly a year of training to prepare them for the task. That training includes the enlisted aircrew undergraduate course, survival training, enlisted aircrew training and weapons-specific training at the home station before they receive the "thumbs up" to fly the boom on their own.

Because of high-operations tempo brought on by operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, boomers are quickly racking up combat sorties.

"This is my sixth deployment in three years, and I recently flew my 105th combat sortie," Airman Whitehead said. "I really enjoy the diversity of the missions we fly and being a part of the contributions we make to the war effort. If we don't do our job, it directly affects other missions."

Squadron leaders said they are very proud of the combat contributions made by crewmembers.

"More and more crews are reaching this significant accomplishment due to the sustained operations tempo we've been flying in over the last three years," said Lt. Col. Mike Winters, 908th EARS commander. "In the past, it wasn't uncommon for a KC-135 crewmember to go a whole career and not reach 100 combat sorties, but now we have crews who reach 100 sorties in as little as 18 months."

In the past 10 months, Airman Stahl has flown 86 combat sorties and deployed for more than 200 days. Despite the busy pace, he said he is proud to be contributing to the mission.

"It's extremely rewarding to see a fighter aircraft with bombs missing come back to be refueled," Airman Stahl said. "You know that they're supporting troops in combat or flying bombing missions, and the fuel we provide contributes to the success of their missions."

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