The pit crews at this weekend’s NASCAR race at Kansas Speedway have nothing on these guys. The Kansas Air National Guard 190th Air Refueling Wing based in Topeka is a gas station in the sky for military aircraft. If you are flying, say a B-2 bomber, and you’re within a few hundred miles of the Topeka exit and you’re running low on fuel, don’t fret, call the 190th. They’ll come top off your tank. You won’t even have to land your plane.
Earlier this week one of the 190th’s KC-135 refueling planes went up on a scheduled training flight to refuel three B-2 bombers headed to their home at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo. Members of the media were invited along for the ride to observe the process.
The process of transferring fuel from one airplane to another is a well-choreographed dance that takes some top-notch flying skills and nerves of steel. While the pilot of the air tanker keeps the plane at a steady altitude and speed, the plane taking the fuel cozies up slightly below and behind it ready for a fill up. On the back of the air tanker is the refueling boom which serves sort of like the fuel hose at the gas pump. The refueling port for the plane needing refueled is on the top of the plane, easily accessible for the refueling boom. Inside the air tanker, near the tail end of the plane, under its belly lies the boom operator. He is in charge of guiding the refueling boom into the fuel port on the plane below him. His job is done while lying prone and looking out a window at the tail of the plane.
From the boom operator’s perch the view is spectacular and it gives him a clear look at his incoming customer who he communicates with via radio. Once the boom operator determines the trailing plane is in the correct position, he guides the refueling boom into place using one hand to manipulate small wings on the end of the boom that fly it and the other hand to extend the boom and release the fuel. On this mission the planes met up at 29,000 feet over Kansas while jetting along at speeds that would easily leave any NASCAR racer in the dust. On the ground, it would be similar to transferring fuel from a gas tanker to a race car while they speed around the track together.