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News | Aug. 22, 2016

Air Refueling: Here Comes the Boom

By Airman Isaac Johnson 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Laying down soaring through the sky clouds are visible as far as the eye can see. In the distance appears a speck, which grows larger by the second, finally becoming recognizable as an aircraft.

Now the hard part begins. Both aircraft move at hundreds of miles per hour and it’s the boom operator’s responsibility to “thread the needle” and refuel the approaching aircraft from 28 to 47 feet away.

Boom operators are essential to RED FLAG-Alaska exercises; they refuel aircraft from different participating units, and take care of other duties that happen behind the cockpit.

“From the pilot’s seats to the back of the jet, it is all my responsibility,” said Andy Birmingham, a boom operator assigned to the 99th Air Refueling Squadron out of Birmingham Air National Guard Base, Alabama. “It’s more than just the air refueling part.”

Boom operators adapt to fill different roles on the aircraft depending on the goal of the mission.

“I can be a part-time flight attendant more or less,” said Birmingham. “If we do any kind of cargo hauling, I can be a passenger monitor. When we do cargo loading I take care of that, so I am kind of a loadmaster. All of these duties encompass the job of boom operator.”

Although the career field requires multiple skills, air refueling is the unique skill that makes boom operators one of a kind.

“Air refueling is the key component of the job,” said Birmingham. “If the tankers weren’t airborne the fighters wouldn't have time to do their mission. So we do anything we can to get our jets up there so the fighters can get their training. That’s a mission accomplished for everyone.”

Pumping fuel from one moving aircraft to another is similar to jumping out of the window of one moving vehicle into another. It is a difficult process and boom operators must remain composed while doing it.

“You definitely have to stay calm,” said Birmingham. “You have to keep everything in your picture, not just what the receiver is doing, but what you are doing as well. Sometimes we might have a little bit of turbulence, so you have to remain sharp and almost predict what the aircraft is going to do.”

Boom operators are an important part of RF-A, they are necessary to the air refueling process that allows sorties to be extended.

“The boom operator is the key component in the tanker,” said Tech. Sgt. Roger Braun, the acting superintendent for the Tanker Task Force during RF-A 16-3. “Without the boom operator the tanker wouldn't have the capability of providing fuel to support the mission and the fight.”