Your connection with the sky

Flying the Boom – A Ride with the 72nd Air Refueling Squadron

Ssgt Jason Bireley at the Boom Station

If you ask SSgt Jason Bireley what he does for a living, he might say that he lies on his belly and passes gas.  SSgt Bireley doesn’t give me the impression of a guy who’d actually put it that way, but it’s true in a sense.  He’s a refueling boom operator on the KC-135R Stratotankers of the 72nd Air Refueling Squadron/434th Air Refueling Wing based at Grissom Air Reserve Base near Peru, Indiana.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ride along on a refueling mission over the Carolinas with SSgt Bireley, fellow boom operator MSgt Scott Ward, Pilot LtCol Thom Pemberton, and copilot 2Lt Jacob Creel.  I rode along with about a half dozen local media personalities to get a look at what the 434th does on training flights like this.

“Lying on one’s belly and passing gas” is a rather radical simplification of what the boom operators on a KC-135R do.  In fact, it requires substantial flying skill. 

View of C-17 Out Back of KC0135R

Flying skill?  You bet.  It’s hard enough to get the massive KC-135R and the C-17 Globemaster there in the picture into close trailing formation at 250 knots while dodging building anvil clouds in a 2,000-ft altitude block that starts at 26,000 feet.  The process is made easier and more reliable by the boom design, which includes a couple of wings (actually, there’s a lot of dihedral, or “V” shape, so the apparatus looks something like the V-tail on some Bonanzas and other aircraft).

The boom operator actually flies the boom left and right and he or she can extend or retract a lower portion of the boom to mate with a fuel receiving port on the receiving aircraft.  Lying on his belly with his chin resting on a padded support, SSgt Bireley flies the boom with his right hand using a control located directly below his right shoulder.  The control stick looks a lot like some of those I’ve seen in warbirds.

SSgt Bireley’s left hand operates two levers that drop, and then extend, the boom.  He also has controls that handle lighting, fuel flow, and other functions.  The controls in front of him are about the same in quantity and complexity as what you’d see on a Cessna 152.  Not a perfect comparison, mind you, but that’s my sense of it.

I understand that SSgt Bireley has some civilian flight time and that he’s thinking about continuing his pilot training with the possibility in mind of becoming a military pilot at some point.  Regardless, he’s off to a great start running this gas station in the sky.

This was a practice exercise and we only passed about 1,000 pounds of fuel.  It was an important flight in several respects in that one of the C-17 drivers was on his checkride for final certification to fly the aircraft.  But think about the same thing over the Atlantic fueling thirsty aircraft that must successfully refuel or be unable to make it across the pond.  The stakes really go up in that situation.

I’ll post soon about the front of the airplane, where LtCol Pemberton flew the aircraft ably and 2Lt Creel got a great training workout.


4 Responses to “Flying the Boom – A Ride with the 72nd Air Refueling Squadron”

  1. Alex Kovnat Says:
    June 29th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    The KC-135 is based on Boeing 707 technology. Can you imagine any self-respecting airline still flying Boeing 707's?

    I'd like to see 777 or, if that's too big, 767-based air-to-air refueling tankers in our nation's air force. And if Boeing can't deliver, Airbus-based tankers.

  2. Alex - so not that I'm nitpicking, but are you not aware of the huge to-do with the 767 tanker leases, and then the A330/767 competition that went in favor of the A330 (KC-X program)? This has been going on for almost 5 years.

  3. Great story! Always a very interesting perspective from the "boom-ops" point-of-view!

  4. Homer Landreth Says:
    June 29th, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    This brings back a flood of memories for me. I rotated back from Southeast Asia to Grissom AFB right when it was renamed from Bunker Hill AFB. My Son was born there. We flew the tanker on such a variety of missions. We went Young Tiger deployments back to SEA, flew the "Looking Glass" support, supported our own B-58 Bombers and everyone elses B-52s. The Tankers' old 707 bodies served us well then as well as it does now.

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