Fairchild celebrates 73rd year of refueling wing
Last updated 11/22/2020 at 12:17pm
FAIRCHILD AFB-Nov. 17 was the 92nd Air Bombardment Wing's 73rd birthday at Fairchild Air Force Base. To celebrate, the base hosted members of the media, including reporter Drew Lawson and publisher Roger Harnack of the Cheney Free Press, on a refueling flight on a KC-135 Stratotanker.
The 92nd Air Bombardment Wing became the 92nd Air Refueling Wing in 1994 after several name changes to reflect the base's changing missions and remains so in present day.
The experience began as the sunrise, visible from the base toward Cheney, crested over the rolling hills of the West Plains and painted orange colors onto parked stratotankers anticipating future refueling missions.
Media members were screened in a terminal, similar to a commercial airport, then transported in a van to the KC-135 where the flight would occur. The only way onto the tanker was up a metal ladder through a small opening by the cockpit, so media members' swift climbing abilities were tested.
All passed the test.
While the stratotanker was prepared, media was introduced to the crew, which included two airmen who would be manning the boom pod. Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Clauss was training Master Sgt. Steve Saunders in operating an extended boom near the tail of the tanker that is used to fuel jets, planes and other tankers.
Training to be a boom operator is an extensive process that includes air fundamentals and boom operating courses in San Antonio, simulator and cargo training, flight lessons, how to run a boom checklist and mission certification training, Clauss shared while showing off the boom pod.
The boom pod is located at the back of the tanker and requires a small step down into a compressed area. Airmen have to lie face-first on one of three provided near-body length cushions. Typically, there is only one boom operator, Clauss said, but because of Saunders' training, there were two on the media flight. The third cushion would be often utilized by a curious reporter or photographer.
The rest of the crew featured Maj. Lukas Huebener, who would be flying the tanker, and Capt. Jordan Camacho and Maj. Stephen Steel, participating in their first flight at Fairchild and providing pilot monitoring; i.e., working radios, flipping switches and monitoring other flight details. All three were stationed in the cockpit.
Just to the right of Huebuener lay a giant dashboard that indicated the tanker's proximity to Spokane International Airport, a spot that Fairchild must be in constant communication with.
"The communication there is daily," Clauss said. "We have to make sure our flights are coordinated."
Another screen showed the direction of the flight, while still another measures speed and altitude.
Getting to the position Camacho and Steel were in takes 13 months of initial training, four to six months of KC-135 training and then mission training, they said. There isn't room for error when piloting a tanker during a refueling trip.
"We have closure rates of up to 1,000 miles per hour," Steel said.
As the crews prepared the tanker for takeoff, Staff Sgt. Connor Wilkins gave media a safety briefing. He covered important topics, such as how to use life vests and oxygen masks that resembled the hazmat masks used by corrupt scientists in Netflix's Stranger Things...as well as motion sickness bags.
The latter would be threatened to be needed, but ultimately wasn't.
Originally, the base expected to host media on a flight over Oregon to refuel F-15 fighter jets, but that fell through last minute. The plan was then to connect with a KC-10 in Northern California from Travis Air Force Base, but when the plane finally took off, another adjustment was made, and the tanker began to head east toward Montana.
The industrial whirring of the engine kicking into high gear signaled the necessity to insert earplugs and fasten seat belts. The tanker circled to its runway before taking off.
The extreme acceleration pulled force toward the tail, and media members, seated perpendicular to the front of the plane, were pulled to the right by the pressure. One feels like they might be on a paratrooping mission, but these tankers are used for refueling and the occasional medical transport flights only.
The tanker shook and dipped through a patch of cloudy turbulence heading east before breaking into clear skies over the snowcapped Idaho Rocky Mountains. Here, a C-17 tanker from another Air Force base (crew members weren't sure which one, though they estimated Tacoma) aligned itself with the boom of the KC-135, and the boom operators went to work.
Using a joystick-like one might find in an arcade game, Clauss guided Saunders through the refueling of the KC-10 as both jets traveled into Montana. The majestic peaks, rolling brown hills and frosted lake surfaces of Big Sky country provided an elegant backdrop to the unusual sight of two planes flying within a few hundred feet of each other as thousands of pounds of Jet A1 fuel was traded from the KC-135 into the C-17.
The fuel exchange used to be much riskier.
"It used to be a process of passing a hose while people walked on the (plane) wing," Clauss said. "But the longevity of this process ... has made this process the most efficient way of doing things, in my opinion."
The same process could be seen between another KC-135 and C-17 from the cockpit to the northwest as the caravan of aircraft passed over Missoula before slowly turning around to head back toward the foggy and gray skies of the Inland Northwest. The location was monitored by Steel on an iPad using an Air Force plane location app.
The flight back provided its fair share of turbulence, as Eastern Washington's clouds provided a mini roller coaster experience of drops, shaking and jolting. The ride was most prominently felt in the boom pit, a location away from the plane's center of gravity where there is less weight distribution. More than one media and crew member kept their eye on the motion sickness bags, but all stomachs ultimately held steady.
The flight landed back at Fairchild after about three hours, having given media members a taste of what it's like to be a part of one of the base's four refueling squadrons.