Why stop for gas? Air Force jets refuel on the fly

KC-10 Extender refueling – Photo: Tor Hanson

Originally published in Boys’ Life – November 2002

SGT. Bill Edwards is one of the Air Force’s friendly gas station attendants. But he won’t be checking oil or replacing wiper blades on this job.

It’s hard enough just getting the fuel where it needs to go – 22,000 feet in the air. Sgt. Edwards is a boom operator who refuels jets all across the world while they’re still in flight. The Air Force depends on experienced aircrews and a fleet of KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker planes to fill tanks when they run low.

There isn’t room for error. Bad weather, turbulence and nighttime refueling missions make for tricky maneuvers.

Planes Inch Closer, Closer…

Sgt. Bill Edwards. Photo: Tor Hanson

The first step in refueling a plane happens on the ground, hours in advance. The Air Force chooses a hookup point and schedules when planes will need a visit from the flying gas station. When it’s time. Sgt. Edwards’s plane will fly ahead of the jet, then slow down so it can catch up. Once the approaching plane is visible, the tanker lines up above while the jet approaches from below.

The airplanes are separated by about. 25 feet of vertical airspace, and they are traveling 300 to 400 miles per hour.

When the planes are close enough, Sgt. Edwards lowers the refueling boom and steers it towards the receptacle on the receiving plane below. Once the boom is hooked up, the Automated Load Alleviation System takes control. It is almost like a “boom auto pilot.” It would, for example, stop the fuel transfer and unhook the boom if there is a violent twist during refueling.

Working His Way Up
To do this job, Sgt. Edwards trained at Castle Air Force Base near Atwater, Calif., for six months after basic training. With 80 flying hours in the logbook, he was ready for his first solo mission. Sgt. Edwards says he had “butterflies in my stomach.”

Thirteen years and 4,500 flying hours later, he has refueled everything from small Air Force jets to huge transport planes and bombers. Sgt. Edwards has also serviced planes that belong to Germany, Great Britain. France and Saudi Arabia.

Sgt. Edwards says the job has its rewards. In 13 years with the Air Force, he has traveled all over the world, and he enjoys the different views from his sky office window. One day, the Arizona desert is below. Other days, he might fly over the Atlantic Ocean. And he gets to see all the cool airplanes – up close.'”

Stormy Ride

Sgt. Edwards says his trickiest mission was a bumpy refueling flight over Oklahoma and North Texas during a thunderstorm. At the time, he was working in a KC-135, trying to refuel a KC-10. “The receiver plane was trying to come in, but we were thrown around inside the thunder clouds and could not make contact,” Sgt. Edwards says. “It was very scary.'”

Sgt. Edwards and His KC-10

The plane flown most often by Sgt. Bill Edwards is a military version of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 cargo jet. Besides the three main wing fuel tanks, the KC-10 has three large fuel tanks under the floor. Combined, the tanks carry a total of 356,000 pounds of fuel. It takes about an hour to refuel one of the Air Force’s larger cargo airplanes, but the boom operator needs just five to six minutes to fill up an F-16 Fighting Falcon. Along with fuel, the KC-10 carries passengers and cargo if needed.

Sidebar: If you want to know more about the back-story to the article, please click here.