13:00 Southern Missouri (25,000 Feet)
As he intently scans the horizon and cloud layer thousands of feet below his small window, the boom operator sees a black, spaceship-looking figure fast approaching. If his search methods were not so deliberate and perceptive, the incoming object could have easily been overlooked. Seconds later, the unmistakable outline of a B-2 Stealth Bomber comes into full focus.
While a jaw-dropping sight for a civilian private pilot along for the ride, this is a regular day for the boom operators, or “booms,” of the Air National Guard’s 190th Aerial Refueling Wing based out of Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas.
The 190th Aerial Refueling Wing (ARW) squadron preaches, “flexibility is the key to air power.” This affirmation is evident across their overarching mission, daily correspondence, as well as deployed operations. The squadron consists of 12 KC-135R’s capable of refueling any aircraft in United States inventory, including F-15’s, F-16’s B-1’s, B-52’s and B-2’s. The group also commonly completes missions with other militaries from NATO countries (as illustrated by the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15C on the cover of this issue).
The ability to adjust and adapt their plans at any time and still complete them successfully is imperative for refueling operators. They face a variety of continually evolving factors such as geography, weather conditions, fuel needs, etc. I witnessed this notion of flexibility after recently spending a day with the 190th ARW, allowing me to experience firsthand how the group supports an evolving and complex mission both overseas and within the U.S.
The day began with a pre-flight brief about the 190th ARW. Like all National Guard squadrons, the group encompasses multiple missions and unique capabilities that contribute to the overall Air Force profile. But the squadron’s primary focus, primarily due to its central location within the Continental United States, is “to provide in-flight aerial refueling, airlift, and aeromedical evacuation capabilities to the United States and NATO partners during peacetime, training, contingency, and deployed operations, and most importantly indirect strategic nuclear deterrent support to all three legs of the nuclear triad.”
Quickly into the brief did the need for flexibility become clear. While initially scheduled to meet with a B-52 in New Mexico or Louisiana, this changed to a meetup with a B-1 from Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in South Dakota. Shortly after this change, another one came in. We were now to intersect a B-2 Stealth Bomber off of Whiteman AFB in Central Missouri and track with it for about 45 minutes. This was set to be enough time for the pilot flying the bomber, who was on their “dollar bill flight” (first time in the aircraft), to start learning how to hook up to our 35,000-gallon flying service station. On the conducted training flight, we carried around 50,000 pounds of fuel and didn’t offload much of it to the trailing aircraft, as it was more a familiarity mission for the pilot connecting to our 20-foot boom.
The pilots of each aircraft have the important job of finding still air and coordinating straight and level flight (at a predetermined altitude and speed). Most of the work to attach the nozzle into the other aircraft’s receptacle is then completed by the boom operator, who is seated dozens of feet behind the cockpit in the tail of the aircraft. This is a difficult and often stressful job that I learned more about on the ground.
Flying the Boom (Simulation)
To showcase the skills needed to successfully “fly” the boom, which is flanked by an airfoil on each side, the 190th had me hop into their refueling simulator for a test “contact” prior to our flight. The “Boom Operator Simulation System,” or “BOSS,” mimics the realism of a refueling mission, much like an aircraft simulator does. The setup inside is almost identical to that of the real boom, including the three “Superman” seats, which are horizontally placed pads that allow the operator to better see the aircraft and make needed adjustments during the refueling process. While in the correct position, the plane is about 45 degrees directly underneath the operator’s eyes, where they can best see the boom extension, receiving pilot and other important reference points.
After taking the noted ergonomic position, I was told that I was going to practice in the same scenario that was to take place in the sky. The sight picture on the high-resolution simulator screen was true to what I would later see, with the boom extension and manipulation handles being so intuitive that I was able to “swish” the boom’s nozzle into the B-2s’ receptacle on the first try. Beginners luck? Of course. Plus, I was operating the simulated boom on “easy mode” – totally irrespective of the additional steps needed to transfer fuel and actually complete the mission. The simulation was just a small preview of what was to come and was not entirely like my experience shadowing Master Sgt. Nathan “Dogg” Neidhardt, who I watched do the real thing in the air.
Back to the Mission
“Dogg,” on the other hand, knows what he is doing after 18 years of Air National Guard refueling experience. Hardly breaking a sweat during the process of connecting aircraft to aircraft in a tiring three-quarters of an hour ordeal, he expertly spoke to the B-2 crew and effortlessly guided them up and down to his fuel line. Intently focused on every shift in movement (whether it be from the KC-135R, B-2 or boom), he called out directions for any adjustments. This was his show and everyone else was to work based off his guidance.
Up front, pilots Maj. Rudy Belew (Aircraft Commander) and Maj.Thayne Heusi (co-pilot) of the Stratotanker maintained straight and level flight and coordinated with air traffic control. It was decided to amend the original plans of dropping the trailing aircraft near St. Louis and instead drop the aircraft closer to their home base in Central Missouri. This allowed the pilot to get additional “contacts” with our boom to further become acquainted with receiving fuel at a point above and past the cockpit. It typically takes new B-2 pilots several familiarization flights with the KC-135R to get up to speed with the refueling process.
Perhaps most interesting about the 190th, other than the obvious unique mission profile, is that there are only a few full-time pilots. While both pilots on my particular flight were full-time, many serve part-time. Part-timers come from their daily jobs with employers that include “every flagship airline and cargo carrier.” With the increasing competition for qualified pilots, the Air National Guard is heavily focused upon recruiting pilots to fill seats in just about all of their planes and draws a set of part-time pilots with diverse backgrounds.
One commonality among all pilots, however, is the ability to be agile and flexible. The 190th ARW pilots’ unofficial motto of “Semper Gumby,” or “always flexible,” describes the group perfectly.