06/16/06 — Teamwork: Pirates' Holtz, get new perspective from 21,000 feet

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Teamwork: Pirates' Holtz, get new perspective from 21,000 feet

By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on June 16, 2006 2:09 PM

As Skip Holtz watched from the back window as a F-16 fighter jet was being refueled 21,000 feet above the Atlantic coast, he beamed like a child on Christmas morning.

"Wow," the East Carolina football coach said. "Isn't that something?"

Holtz, along with ECU director of athletics Terry Holland, Mount Olive basketball coach Bill Clingan and MOC director of athletics Jeff Eisen, took part in a refueling mission Thursday afternoon that began and ended at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

For those four, the two-hour flight on the KC-135R Stratotanker was an experience like no other.

But for the fighter pilots, it was just another trip to the gas station.

"The first time I refueled one of these planes up here, I was scared to death," said Master Sgt. Keny Fallin, an Air Force reserve technician and a boom operator for the Air Refueling Wing. "With an aircraft only 30 or 40 feet behind you, and considering you have to take this metal hose, if you will, and hook it up to another aircraft, it can shake your nerves up pretty good."

But after 10 years, it's become as routine as removing a nozzle from the pump and filling up at the corner BP.

"I've done it for so long now, it's become second nature," said Fallin, a 1988 graduate of Eastern Wayne High School. "But when I get the opportunity to take other people with me and show them and talk to them about what I do, it's almost like doing it for the first time again -- it's that much fun."

The group not only got a chance to fly in the Stratotanker and watch several aircraft refuel, but they also had the opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes operations of how the base and the reservists keep the planes in the air. From the diligent checking of each and every component of the refuelers -- some of which are more than 50 years old -- to inspecting the parachutes and the survival kits, and even manufacturing parts for the KC-135R when necessary, keeping gas in the tanks of military aircraft is no simple task.

"It's incredible, just the precision and how the whole thing plays out, not just up here in the air but on the base and in the shops," Holtz said. "Then it's really neat to come up here and see it all come together. It's teamwork."

Clingan, who took the Trojans to the Division II Elite 8 in 2005, agreed.

"From an athletic standpoint, you look at a game plan and you try to be as accurate as you can, but we can't even compare to the accuracy they have here," Clingan said. "They check and double check, they all work together as a team, the all-for-one and one-for-all, what an experience it's been. As a civilian, you have no idea what takes place until you see it up close and personal like we all did today."

Before the flight, the group was greeted by Col. Paul Sykes, the 916th Air Refueling Wing Commander. At the wing's Command Post, they watched and learned about the whole operation.

Eisen got a chance to do a simulated parachute jump. He missed his target and crashed into a tree. After trying on a bulletproof vest and a parachute, Holtz whipped out his digital camera and handed it to Holland as he hopped into the cockpit of an F-16 simulator. Combat and fighter pilot helmets were also modeled, and cutting-edge night vision was tried out.

"It was a great experience," Eisen said. "I'll have to admit, I was a little nervous -- I'm not big on flying -- but I'm glad I did. It was a lot of fun."

Above the clouds, Holtz expressed his fondness for the military, and how one particular photo helps motivate his football team.

"We've got a picture in our weight room sent to us from a Marine who flew a Pirate flag over one of the areas in Iraq," Holtz said. "He took some pictures and sent it to us and we blew it up and put it in our weight room.

"The players just think that's too neat -- they eat it up."