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What its like to refuel the world's most modern fighter jet in midair
Business Insider4/13/2018 3:36:17 PM

Tom Demerly/The Aviationist

Four miles above the open Atlantic I’m sitting in the cockpit of a KC-10 tanker with a hundred tons of explosive jet fuel under me. We’re flying at about 600 MPH. We gingerly inch upward toward another 181-foot long tanker aircraft. That enormous aircraft is only 30-feet away now.

And the air is getting rough.

Lt. Col. Brian Huster of the 78th Air Refueling Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, sitting left seat, pilot in command, works the plane’s control yoke like an arm wrestler in a cowboy bar. It swings forward and back, left and right through alarmingly large arcs.

Despite, or rather because of, his rather physical control inputs our giant tanker remains rock steady. He somehow anticipates every buffet from the turbulent air coming off the vortex of the plane in front of us, anticipating control inputs to keep our KC-10 motionless under the big tanker only feet above our heads in the 600 MPH slipstream four miles above the freezing ocean.

We inch closer to the other aircraft, it’s massive hulk filling our windscreen above our heads. The refueling boom passes several feet over us, just feet from our windscreen.

There is a low “clunk” above my right ear. We make contact with the tanker above us and the ride becomes decidedly smoother. Lt. Col. Huster’s job becomes a good bit easier now.

I’ve just joined the small fraternity of people who have refueled in a jet aircraft in midair.

I’m flying with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve, out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst on America’s east coast.

Tom Demerly/The Aviationist

The 514th AMW is one of two units in the U.S. Air Force flying the KC-10 Extender. In addition to performing the air refueling mission the versatile KC-10 can also carry substantial cargo payloads over 4,000 miles making this aircraft an important strategic asset.

Not only can the KC-10 support tactical aircraft in the midair refueling role, it can also deploy with their support crews and mission critical gear around the world, providing a unique combined tanker and cargo capability for rapid response around the globe.



We’re back over the U.S. mainland now. I’ve moved from the cockpit of our giant KC-10 tanker all the way back to the refueling bay in the rear of the aircraft.

Tom Demerly/The Aviationist

By comparison to other aerial tankers the KC-10’s refueling bay is spacious and comfortable. Strapped into my own seat just right of the boom operator I have a panoramic view of the earth 22,000 feet below.

Broken cumulus at 10,000 feet over the snow-patched green east coast farms of New Jersey slowly cascade beneath us.

 



In utter silence a ghostly grey F-35A Lightning II slips under us from the right side of the aircraft. It’s eerie how quiet it is.

Tom Demerly/The Aviationist

Like a real-world Darth Vader its pilot sits under a tinted canopy wearing his custom carbon fiber helmet that interacts with the F-35A’s many sensors and systems. And exactly like a character from Star Wars his helmet helps the F-35A pilot see and hear everything around him throughout angles and at distances that would be impossible for normal human senses.

My first impression looking down on the joint strike fighter pilot 30-feet from us is that he is a real-world cyborg, a living part of an advanced next generation machine that shares information with other aircraft and weapons systems, monitors the entire battlespace with clairvoyant reach and awareness and reacts almost automatically. The pilot under that custom carbon fiber helmet is the brains of it all.

I had read the stories about midair refueling. The drama of the 6,800-mile-long Black Buck mission by the RAF to attack the Falkland Islands after the Argentinean invasion in 1982. The desperate tanker missions over North Vietnam in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to save pilots from ejecting and being imprisoned in the H?a Lò POW camp, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. I

n 2016 CNN’s Zack Cohen reported on a story that apparently still remains partially classified. An F-16 from an unspecified country could not access his onboard fuel during a 2015 combat mission over ISIS held territory.

As was the tragic case of both a Jordanian and Russian combat pilot, going down over ISIS held territory is a death sentence for a combat pilot even if he does survive the ejection. The tanker crew flew with the malfunctioning F-16, refueling the aircraft every 15 minutes to keep it in the air until it reached safety.

I also read USAF Lt. Col. Mark Hasara’s excellent book, “Tanker Pilot, Lessons from The Cockpit”. In the literature of aviation history, there are too many stories of heroism and daring by tanker crews to recount.

None of the books or history lessons or classes in the military prepared me for the real-life science fiction of what is unfolding in front of me now.




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SEE ALSO: The Air Force just released a bunch of crazy photos of A-10 Warthogs over Afghanistan

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