The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Confessions Of A USAF KC-135 'Flying Gas Station' Boom Operator

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It is one of the coolest jobs in the entire U.S. military, "Booms" as they are affectionately called, are the folks who directly provide sustenance to America's thirsty air power as the gas station's of the sky. From flying over war zones to fueling top secret experimental aircraft, being a Boom is truly a dynamic career choice.

Not only do you get to wear pajamas to work (flight suit) everyday but you also have the best view of any office in the world. The back of America's KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders feature panoramic windows that would give Willy Wonka's flying glass elevator a run for his money.


The "Boom" featured in this piece retired from the service with close to 3,000 flight hours, of which about 1,000 were spent in support of combat operations. Additionally, this airman was both an aerial refueling instructor and evaluator and has nine air medals, an aerial achievement medal, and over a dozen deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under their belt. Beyond all these accomplishments, boy do they have some great stories and eye-opening info to share...


Moments After The Second Plane Hit The World Trade Center...

Moments after the second plane hit the World Trade Center our base went into Threatcon DELTA. The base was locked down and all tanker crews were sent home to pack and get crew rest. Around 10pm that night, the first crews started getting called for deployments.

On Sept 12, 2001, at 2:30 am, we launched from our base in the central US and headed to Goose Bay, Canada to set up an Air Bridge. For those not in the Military or have never heard, the Air Bridge is just as it sounds, a way to get fighters and bombers from the United States into the area of responsibility (AOR) as quick as possible. In this case that AOR was around and eventually inside of Afghanistan.

Tankers went to Goose Bay, Iceland, RAF Mildenhall, etc., and launched to keep fighters and bombers airborne on a continuous mission to the middle East. After one flight in the Air Bridge, our tanker was deployed to a tiny remote nation in the Persian Gulf, home of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, Bahrain.

Bahrain wasn't some great paradise land of beaches and palm trees for us. We had a runway and a building when we first arrived and that is about it. Crews were already setting up makeshift tents for future aircrews to get rest before the combat missions kicked into full swing. Some tankers were already flying the three and a half hours into and out of Afghanistan, completely around Iranian airspace.

The weird part about being in Bahrain was that the location we were operating from was deemed classified at the time and designated with a base "letter" only, let's just call it "Base Q." Slowly but surely we built up Base Q to the point that it was homey enough to live without feeling like you are in such a distant land. We even had a golf course (completely sand of course), and our own private beach access, albeit with barb wire fencing preventing anyone from taking a swim in the Persian Gulf.

Because of the close proximity to Iran, we lived under a constant threat of some crew flying into their airspace and violating international law, thus giving the Iranians a reason to launch missiles in our direction or at least cause a major international spectacle. Luckily we had Patriot batteries surrounding our base just in case. For the next two to three weeks, we flew everyday, and when we weren't flying or sleeping, we were literally building-up our operating facilities on base from the sand up with the help of RED HORSE.

The Absolute Coolest Thing I Saw Over Afghanistan Was...

The absolute coolest thing that I saw in Afghanistan was an F-16 drop its external fuel tanks and haul ass to aid some troops on the ground. We were doing normal patrol stuff with a pair of them. We would circle over the top of their area of responsibility, and they would come up for gas as they needed it, which was often.

One was on the boom and the other was on the way to the boom when the call came in from a JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) for close air support for troops under intense fire. The F-16 on the boom immediately disconnected, hit the brakes and rapidly dropped back about a hundred feet, popped off its external fuel tanks and took off like a bat out of hell with the burner lit. The other F-16 made it to us, topped off its tanks, and kept its externals on after fueling.

Since they had much less fuel on board now, we flew directly over the area where our troops were being attacked and stayed on station while they did bombing runs on the enemy. Eventually the A-10's that had scrambled out of Baghram Air Base arrived on scene and took care of everything. The F-16s stayed on our wings all the way back to Qatar, and we landed with less than 10,000 pounds of fuel left, which equates to about an hours worth of flying (KC-135 burns 10k an hour through the engines). Our minimum was supposed to be 25,000lbs.

Other things happened that were pretty wild during this time period. One crew had an F/A-18 that took a shitload of damage and all the fuel the tanker was feeding into it was just leaking directly out of its tanks. The KC-135 flew with that F-18 for three and a half hours constantly feeding it fuel until it was able to "glide" into a base in the UAE safely.


Saddam And His Sons Have 48 Hours To Leave Iraq Or Face War "At The Time Of Our Choosing..."

On March 17, 2003, President Bush gave his famous speech telling Saddam and his sons that they had 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war "at a time of our choosing." By this time we were based at the sprawling Al Udeid AB in Qatar, along with a heavy buildup of every aircraft imaginable, and some that are still classified. During this time period I remember a squadron meeting where the Operations Group Commander told us to "be careful what you say over the phone, and pay no attention to the black, pointy shaped aircraft and "others" that were coming to the base." Tension were rising at the base, since we were on constant alert for the impending invasion, all the while still flying three and a half hours each way flights into and out of Afghanistan. For the second time in just a couple of years I was watching my country ramp up for full-scale war.

On March 20th, between midnight and one in the morning local time, the tankers launched on their missions, but instead of heading east into Afghanistan, they headed north to the Saudi border. That first night was nerve racking. This wasn't like Afghanistan, where your worst threat was going to be some Taliban guy shooting a MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense aka a shoulder fired SAM) at us. This was Iraq, and there was still an Iraqi Air Force and air defense network. Before the "go" order was given, we had several air refueling tracks located on the Saudi side of the border, with a tanker stacked at every three thousand feet from 18,000 to 31,000 feet. The scale and complexity of the operation was just mind boggling.

This operation would be different than others before it, and from much of our standard operating procedures used in training. The difference being this operation would mark the first time in our history that a tanker was "in country" so to speak. No tanker had ever flown into Iraqi airspace due to the High Value Airborne Asset (HVAA) category placed on tankers in general. Some other members of this club include AWACS, JSTARS, RIVET JOINT, COBRA BALL, etc. So just like the multitude of assets we refuel, we too would be flying over enemy airspace.

Taking off radio silent, we followed this stealthy procedure as we made our way to our new refueling tracks inside Iraq. Just fifty miles south of Baghdad, we were sitting in the dark waiting for signs of the war to begin. And then it happened. F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighters stationed at "The Deid" along with us began dropping bombs in Downtown Baghdad in an attempt to kill Saddam on the first night. This was almost exactly 50 hours after President Bush gave his "48 Hours" speech. Then the real fun began...


Refueling The F-117's & "The Others" At Night, With No Lights On & Radio Silent...

Looking back at my first few years in the Air Force, I was fortunate enough to refuel the F-117 Nighthawk on several occasions, however it was always during the day time. At night was another story. Daytime refueling with a stealth was stressful enough. Just scraping a stealth with RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) coating outside of the receptacle area meant an ass chewing when you got back to base, not to mention the possible affect it could have on a jet's stealth capability. Now we were facing refueling the F-117s and "the others" at night, with no lights on, and no communications. Receiver aircraft simply flew to where they knew the tanker would be and got enough fuel to get back to home base so that they could reload and launch again. It was an all out free for all.

Usually when we launched on a combat mission we knew exactly what receiver aircraft we would have meeting us, including their type, callsign, scheduled fuel offload, etc. But not that night. It was "stay until bingo" (minimum safe fuel load needed to get back to base) and only then RTB (Return To Base). Some crews even had enough time to offload their fuel to other tankers in flight, return to the base, jump on another fueled up jet, and set back out again to join the fight all over again. It was an exciting and highly demanding moment in time.

One of the more impressive sights to see on that March night was witnessing the Tomahawk cruise missiles coming off of the ships in the Persian Gulf and hitting their targets in Baghdad. We were orbiting fifty miles south of the city, with the perfect view for watching the show, it was incredible. On that early morning, Stealths, along with, F-16's, F-15's, hell the whole damn Air Force, destroyed Iraq's Air Force and defensive measures along the Persian Gulf and Kuwait, allowing the Marines to advance northward and start taking out Iraq's Army. The light show of launches and impacts was just surreal, such violence but also such beauty at the same time, it will stick in my head forever.

After "Shock and Awe" was over, tankers were a permanent fixture inside Iraq's borders. With little to no Air Force, and hardly any small arms to reach us, we flew over the country with ease, allowing us to get right above the F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s performing bombing runs or patrol missions. All they needed to do was simply refuel with the tanker flying 10,000 feet above them instead of flying 50-100 miles away from their patrol areas to get gas. F-15E Strike Eagle drivers recorded record flight hours during this time frame because of the continuous 24/7 support from tankers performing combat missions directly over the conflict zone.

The only time someone tried to take a shot at us while in Iraqi airspace was when we dropped down below 15k feet to refuel the heavily laden A-10s. We would give them the gas they needed to get back into the fight and then we would climb back up to our tracks at 25k feet. They tried to hit us but they always missed and when they did fire the A-10's would break away and unleash hell on them. As boom operators, we would take all the jet's bulletproof vests that were attached to the parachutes and lay them down in the boom pod to protect us incase small arms, AAA, or MANPADS got lucky. It was probably mo[re] for piece of mind than anything else...


Secret Aircraft Need Gas Too...

Secret aircraft need gas too, and they get it at the hands of qualified booms sitting in the back of KC-10 and KC-135 tankers just like the rest of the unclassified fleet does, but the process is a little different.

Edwards AFB has two refueling squadrons, although I only know of one KC-135 they actually own although it may be more now. The squadrons are the 445th FLTS (active duty) and the 370th FLTS (guard). The 445th supports all experimental aircraft testing while the 370th supports all developmental aircraft testing, but they both can share aircraft and crews, depending on mission needs and workload.

These squadrons do not organically provide enough aerial refueling capability to meet testing demands so Edwards AFB calls for Active and Guard refueling squadrons from all over the US to go there for two week TDY's (temporary duty assignments). Usually these include two jets and crews, except during busy times, like when a new aircraft is in full developmental testing mode, such as the F-22 in the late 90s and early 2000s or the F-35 today.

My first TDY to Edwards was in the early 2000s and my last was in 2006. We belonged to the 445 FLTS during our time there and you have to have a top secret clearance, not an interim clearance (all booms have top secret clearances or interim clearances for SIOP purposes). When we left our home base, we were expecting to be there for F-22 support, at least that's what our paperwork said. But when you get there it's hit or miss what you actually get to refuel. If your flight plan is going into the "box" area tracks (restricted airspace surrounding Area 51), most likely you are going to have security with you (but not always), and most likely your going to see something maybe a few dozen people have seen before, depending on the compartmentalization of the project. It is very exciting to see what actually shows up on the boom to say the least.

These two week missions consisted of flying every morning or night for around 3-4 hours and culminated with leaving on the second Friday, heading back to hour home base. If you were one of the lucky ones to see a black project, then the 445th Squadron Commander and Chief Boom Operator gave you the infamous tanker black world patch. It's also known as a "Friday" or "morale patch." I got mine in 2002, as a fresh instructor Boom much to the jealousy of fellow Booms back home. We also got a certificate that was actually classified Secret and had to be carried in our "secrets" bag. When returning to our home base, the certificates were displayed in the top secret SIOP briefing room located in "The Vault" for everyone to see. That certificate was the first time I've seen the six stars used in conjunction with Area 51. Five stars representing the "5" and the additional star representing the "1" in the base's designation. You can see the same stars on many clandestine program patches that were test flown out of Area 51. As for the certificate itself, unfortunately I can't share what else was on it. The patch on the other hand featured "Spooky" (from the Spy vs Spy comics), and our motto "Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas...Nobody!"

I was actually part of a lucky crew that flew into "a test facility in the center of the Nellis Range Complex" for a SCI briefing on a particular jet I would be refueling. It was a first actual offload to said jet ever. So it was pretty cool to be able to do the honors.

Once again, our primary mission when TDY to Edwards AFB was for F-22 flight development and testing support. We took off right after they did and landed when they were done. They got all the gas they needed on the mission, which usually lasted three hours or so. And of course we had unexpected guests from time to time like the Gray F-117s from the Skunkworks plant located over at Palmdale, as well as some other "unique" aircraft operating in the area that I cannot describe.


The Flying Gas Station...

People often refer to the KC-135 as "The Flying Gas Station," and that term is not to far from the truth. During boom refueling we can offload 6,000 pounds of fuel a minute. A gallon of fuel weighs around 6.7 pounds so you can do the math on just how fast the gas is spraying out of the tip of that telescoping boom. We burn 10k lbs an hour just flying, and we can take off with around 200k lbs of fuel, so a standard 8 hour flight leaves us with around 95k to offload, given our minimum fuel at landing requirement of 25k lbs.

The most I ever offloaded at one time was when a C-5 took off out of Al Udeid AB, Qatar carrying some classified cargo non-stop back to the United States. We offloaded 105 thousand pounds of fuel in a single continuous contact, and for a short while increased the gross weight of the C-5 to well over a million pounds. Fighters can't do 6K a minute though because the pressure is too great for their fuel system with all four of our air refueling pumps running at one time. Bigger fighters can do 2 pumps but most do just one pump, taking on around 1500 pounds a minute.

Drogue based aerial refueling, where we attach a hose and "basket" to the end of our boom so that Navy, Marine and foreign aircraft equipped with probes can plug in, has a lot less fuel flow. Around 1,000 pounds a minute is usually what this configuration can handle, and it also happens to be what boom operators hate most. It's so boring doing drogue refueling as you just hold the boom there and they do all the work. Not fun at all. At lease MPRS (Multi-Point-Refueling-System) you have something to do.

The MPRS consists of a pod on each wing that has a hose and drogue system inside of it. On command the hose and drogue winches out from the pod. When we are equipped with the MPRS we can refuel both USAF aircraft and Navy/Marine/foreign aircraft during a single mission. Or we can refuel up to three probe equipped aircraft at a single time if we have the hose attached to the boom. The baskets in the MPRS pods are soft, not like the one we attach to the boom, which is metal and weighted. The Navy hates using the boom-basket setup and call it "The Iron Maiden" as it is hard to plug into and can damage the aircraft if it bashes around.

The MPRS control system is pretty cool actually. Everything else in the boom pod is from the 50's and 60's with "steam" gauges, and then you have this modern electronic panel sitting in front of you with modern controls! We basically enter the fuel offload into it and then extend the the hoses behind the wings. The receivers come and latch on to the basket and once they hit the fuel mark we entered, it stops pumping fuel automatically. MPRS definitely is a force multiplier and it is becoming more essential as the services continue to integrate operations with one another.


Every Receiver Is A Little Different...

Every receiver is a little different, so we have specific qualifications for heavy aircraft and fighter aircraft, called gulf and Charlie. The boom's flight characteristics are different with different aircraft. For example, when a C-5 comes up behind a KC-135, and the bow wave produced from the C-5 is so great it takes quite a bit of muscle to hold the boom at the correct elevation behind the jet. We have a trim system that we can set on the boom to help but its still a challenging operation. Fighters are just about the easiest things to refuel, with the exception of the F-117. At night, under lights out and comms out rules, you can barely make out the plane, much less its receptacle. The boom has a nozzle light that illuminates the area it is pointing at but by the time you see the light your almost touching the jet's inky-black skin. Some booms have even been confused as to which hole to stick the boom into at night and have bashed the F-117's opening for the forward FLIR turret causing damage to the fragile jet.

Procedures for refueling an F-16 is probably the hardest to teach new booms. You have to fly the boom around the canopy of the receiver, then over a nine inch antenna that's 18 inches in front of the receptacle. Its just tricky. Fighter pilots are also usually impatient. They come in very fast and they will "park" right where they are supposed to be. If you can't plug them, then they get all pissed off and the "fun" begins.

The SR-71 is unlike any other aircraft when it came to refueling. For starters, it used a different fuel that no other airplane out there uses, JP-7, including the tanker it gets its gas from which uses JP-8. So what they came up with is the KC-135Q which later turned into the KC-135T model after the big turbofan engines were added. This unique configuration of the KC-135 allowed the tanker to put JP-7 in the forward and aft fuselage tanks available for offloading to a receiver, while allowing the tanker to burn JP-8 from the other eight tanks on board. Also, the speed alone when conducting a refueling with the SR-71 is right on the upper limit of the tanker's speed envelope while also being on the lower limit of the SR-71's speed envelope. Just getting into position to refuel with an SR-71 was a notorious challenge, although once there it was awesome to see the SR-71 light its burners while on the boom as it became weighed down with tens of thousands of pounds of freshly acquired fuel.

I got to refuel a C-32B a couple times but it was really nothing special. I even refueled Air Force One a time or two. Since a lot of the times they fly both VC-25s (Air Force One's formal designation when the President is not on board) on international missions, we were never really certain if its actually Air Force One or simply the decoy/backup jet. Once of the times I refueled one of them was when President Bush went to Baghdad for the first time unannounced under the cover of darkness which was in retrospect a very historic operation.

As far as other special aircraft that require unique aerial refueling capabilities, the 384th ARS at McConnell AFB are the guys that do some interesting work. The full extent of their mission classified but I can tell you this, they can fly really low, way lower than we were allowed to refuel at, in order to offload their fuel to their receiver which are usually AC-130 Gunships and other lower-performance special operations aircraft. Doing so is challenging due to the flight characteristics of the boom at low speed and low altitude. It takes quite a bit of muscle to hold the boom up to 30 on the elevation at low speed. Nowadays, most instructor level booms are certified to do this. Other than that mission, they don't really have anything extra or so anything that any other Boom can't do. "Sierra 99" is a KC-10 callsign out of Travis AFB that supports black projects over the Nellis Range Complex and possibly other places. And that's about all I can tell you about "Sierra 99."

When it comes to the unmanned stuff I will tell you that we have been refueling UAV's for a while now. I personally messed around with the UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) in the mid 2000s, conducting air refueling tests with the drone. They would come up to pre-contact position and stabilize there at about 50 feet behind the boom. We never made contact with them due to a lack of a receptacle, but the knowledge that they learned from these flights led to pretty good UAV systems that can be very close to other aircraft.

We also have turbulence to deal with when refueling anything, whether it be a heavy or something exotic, especially when you consider that we are flying two airplanes in close vertical proximity. The first thing in our "Dash 1" technical orders states: "Because of the magnitude of interrelated aerodynamic effects flying two aircraft at close vertical proximity is unsafe." So basically the USAF tells us that our job is not safe right off the bat. But I've hit turbulence during refueling where we had to initiate an emergency separation or "breakaway" several times. The boom operator disconnects, the tanker hits full throttle and the receiver plane drops a thousand feet in a couple seconds just to get separation. We also practice this all the time. Almost every flight since we have to separate and give up MARSA (Military Assumes Responsibility of the Separation of Aircraft) anyway.

Another cool thing to see is St Elms fire. A lot of the time when operating around heavy weather you can see "lightning" jumping from the end of the boom to the receivers receptacle. Its harmless for the most part but it really does look like something out of Star Wars the first time you see it.


The Ever Changing Air Force & Our Greedy Need For Technology...

You do have to keep in mind the ever changing Air Force and our greedy need for new technology when deciding on becoming a Boom. We do have the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus coming online soon and the boom pod, with its huge bay windows facing aft, will eventually be a thing of the past. There was a time when I was at the back of the jet with my Bose headset on and the noise cancellation activated and it was like total peace. So quiet and peaceful looking out the rear of the jet, with nothing on my mind. Then, on other days you would take off, the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) would catch on fire, and the smoke alone was enough to suffocate you. We would dump 10,000 pounds of fuel while in the overhead pattern above base and land the plane in an emergency. When you fly in machines that are getting up to almost 60 years in age you really never know what the day will bring.

In the KC-135 the boom is like its own little aircraft, it literally flies through the air with its control surfaces moving at our mechanical command in order to "fly it" into position. On the KC-10 and the new KC-46 the boom is controlled via a fly-by-wire system, where you don't really have direct feedback from the boom as it moves through the air. This is like flying an F-4 versus an F-22. There is something to be said for the new systems, but the KC-135's old-school direct control and feedback make it more of a precision instrument than its supposedly technologically superior cousins.

Depth perception is key to mastering the job as well. Without great depth perception you weren't able to be a Boom. Now with the 3-D cameras and headsets employed on the KC-46, who knows what kind of qualifications will be needed. Maybe the fine craft of being a boom operator will finally be the video game everyone thought we were playing to begin with. Then again the KC-135 will be around for many decades to come, so although the technology is changing, it is doing so at a snail's pace.


Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas... Nobody!

The rumor is that the Grissom boys (Grissom AFB Tanker Squadron) started using NKAWTG back in 1984 for special ops missions down south. This is backed up by David English's book "The Air Up There" where he says the same thing. The term really has some truth to it as America's air combat doctrine has been manicured around the fact that we have hundreds of tanker aircraft. The thousands of short-ranged fighter jets that make up the majority of the shooting side of the USAF, Navy & Marines air arms need gas constantly during combat operations, some every hour or even less. So even though our community has such a central role when it comes to America's ability to fight our enemies, we are often misunderstood or go totally unrecognized.

Being a boom operator takes more skill than one might think. Most people would say that we lay down, pass gas, and have two officers take us to work! Well, that's true, but there's a tad more to it than that. If anyone is thinking about becoming a boom operator here's a few helpful tips: IT'S THE BEST JOB IN THE AIR FORCE!!!! Ok, I'm a little bias[ed], but you got to admit that it's pretty cool. It was also constantly challenging keeping up with all the qualifications so that you can be used to refuel more or less everything in the inventory, including aircraft you had no idea even existed, and all in different atmospheric conditions. We had separate qualifications for day/night fighter, day/night heavy, day/night stealth, day/night SOAR, and day/night special. You really had to stay current on all of them as your "customer" could be anything in the inventory form day to day.

We were also the loadmaster and flight attendant when carrying passengers and/or cargo, so we had to stay current on these jobs as well. The KC-135 could hold six standard pallets and all kinds of other roll-on gear, including spare engines, so it was always interesting to see what we were hauling when not executing the aerial refueling side of our mission.

The demands on tanker support dictates that we refueled 24/7 and 365 days a year and during my time of service our usage rate was extremely high due to both wars going in full swing. If we were home I would fly usually three times a week and around five times a week while deployed. But when not flying we all had jobs on the ground. I ended my career as a Boom as the Operations Group instructor Boom. I held the jobs of ground scheduler, flight supervisor, instructor boom and evaluator as well. In a single year we could be deployed for 300 days during the height of overseas operations. Needless to say it was a challenging environment but at least we got to see a lot of action and the world while also being a key part of the war effort.


A huge thanks to "The Boom" who took the time to take us into their fascinating world.

Photo credits USAF/DoD, patch via "The Boom"

Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address