11/04/04 — A refueling we will go ...

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A refueling we will go ...

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on November 4, 2004 2:01 PM



News-Argus Staff Writers

A large military plane is flying high above the clouds in a holding pattern. Suddenly two fighter jets appear, and one inches its way up under the belly of the big plane.

Why would two planes flying more than 300 knots an hour get that close to each other? Because the jet was taking on fuel from the bigger aircraft.

Local journalists got the chance Wednesday to see how an air refueling is done when the 916th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base sponsored a media flight on one of its KC-135 refuelers.

It was in preparation for the airshow, Wings Over Wayne, to be held Sunday at the base from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Pilots at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base head to the skies at least twice a week on refueling training missions.

One such pilot, Maj. Nick Hayes, flew the media Wednesday.

He said the most difficult thing about flying a big plane like the KC-135 is the weather. "It can be a challenge," he said.

"The best thing about flying is getting to see different places and different things," he added.

The co-pilot, Capt. Ewen Lennon, has been flying 12 years. He flew C-5s out of Dover, Del., before flying the KC-135.

"It was my childhood dream to fly," Lennon said. "After so many years of doing it, that kind of falls to the wayside, and it's more of a job now. But I wouldn't want to be doing anything else."

Lennon will be flying a KC-135 during Sunday's air show.

MSgt. Mark McElmurry was one of two boom operators on the flight. He said he loves his job. "It gives me a chance to go out and fly and see the world and get paid for it."

He said it makes him feel good that he can go out and refuel other aircraft that are protecting our freedom. "When refueling, it makes me realize that I'm doing a job that most people can't."

McElmurry has almost 3,000 flying hours in the KC-135. He said he's refueled every plane in the Air Force except the SR-71. "I just refueled the F-22 last month, and that has to be my favorite. It's a very easy airplane to refuel."

He said the very first time he refueled another aircraft, he was a little scared. "That big airplane was in back of me and I wasn't used to seeing one that close," he said. "And at a moment's notice it could turn ugly."

McElmurry also had the job of handling the 10 members of the media Wednesday, which included television, radio and newspaper reporters.

After a 7 a.m. check-in at the visitors center and a short trip to the Officers Club, the news folk boarded a bus.

After signing several "hold harmless" agreements, the reporters were ready for the security and safety briefings. The bus first stopped in front of a black door of a long brick building. Emblazoned on the door were the words, "Combat readiness."

Thankfully, the only readiness required was to listen to some safety rules and be scanned by a metal-detector wand.

Upon reaching the tarmac, McElmurry gave a brief history and description of the KC-135 before the journalists boarded.

Once inside the aircraft, McElmurry continued his presentation by showing the exits and explaining how to escape in case of a crash.

After settling into the red jumpseats lining the sides of the aircraft and buckling the seat belts, the reporters were given instructions concerning the "emergency passenger oxygen system."

According to the instructions, it would take so many seconds to open the outer pouch, plus an additional few seconds to open the second pouch, should the cabin lose oxygen.

After that, it would be time to put the plastic bag inside the pouch over your head, he said.

"All your lives people have been telling you not to put plastic over your heads, now we're telling you to do that," McElmurry said.

Before takeoff, he imparts one more piece of safety information.

If there are problems, he explains, passengers would be notified by the "three to get ready and one to go" method.

"There will be three short rings and then one long ring to get out," he said.

Earplugs in, seat belts latched, the reporters sit clutching cameras, tape recorders and notepads, as the plane takes off.

Though the takeoff is smooth, the ascent is sharp enough to make several passengers grab the webbing behind their seats in an effort to steady themselves against the thrust of the plane.

Within a few minutes, everyone is able to unbuckle the belts and move around the plane.

Since it will take almost an hour to reach the refueling destination in the northern part of the state, there's time for interviews with the pilot, co-pilot and the boom operator.

McElmurry, who is also the boom operator, has taken his place at the controls. He has to lie on his stomach at the back bottom of the plane to control the boom. There is a spot on either side of him, where reporters can take turns lying down to look out the window.

Below the plane, a sea of densely packed white clouds roll by, like reversible waves. Though skies were gray before take off, at 22,000 feet above the ground, the sun is shining.

McElmurry said that night refueling missions are a little more challenging because visibility isn't that good.

After modifications, this KC-135 is similar to a Boeing 707, but it's still a 43-year-old plane with 1950's technology.

So the night lights on the plane aren't as bright as some other models, McElmurry said. That increases the need for accuracy and precision by the boom operator to make sure he connects the boom correctly to the plane to be refueled.

McElmurry points to a screen on the control board and says there's a certain range he needs to keep the boom within. That range is marked by red and green lines. If he goes outside of it, the contact light appears.

McElmurry suddenly adjusts his position slightly and nods. "They're almost here," he said, referring to two F-16 fighter jets.

The F-16s are from the 169th Fighter Wing at McIntyre Air National Guard base in South Carolina.

Within a couple of minutes, there's a slight black speck on the horizon. Seconds later, the speck takes shape, and a plane comes hurtling through the atmosphere, headed toward the back of the refueling plane.

Flying about 300 feet below the KC-135 Strato-tanker, the F-16 is soon within range, and Mc-Elmurry lowers the boom.

It's an instant contact, and though the two planes are both traveling at around 500 miles per hour, it feels as though both are perfectly still.

Soon the F-16 moves on, and an F-15E Strike Eagle takes it place. Seymour Johnson is home to the F-15E, and the chance to refuel an F-16 was just an added bonus on this refueling mission.