GAS STATION IN THE AIR: refuelling tankers keep fighter jets fueled up, ready for action

- Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix is not just the home for civilian flights. It is also the home of refueling tankers.

These tankers, KC-135 to be exact, are part of the 161st Air Refueling Wing at the Goldwater Air National Guard Base, which is located at Sky Harbor. They perform a vital mission for fighter jets, bombers and other assets, as they travel at 500 miles per hour.

The KC-135's civilian twin is the Boeing 707. The plane has been flying since the 50s, and what sets a KC-1356 apart from its civilian twin is that a KC-135 can carry 5 semi tankers worth of fuel.

The plane takes a skilled team to keep it flying.

"It's just like an old car. There aren't make '57 Chevys on the road you know," said Master Sergeant Bobby Steele.

"Some of these aircraft are older than my father is," said Aircraft Maintenance Officer Caleb Mischung.

As a fighter jet approaches, the Boom Operator, lying on his belly in the rear of the plane, extends the 27ft boom, which has the width of a fire hose. The fighter jet pilot will then maneuver the plane to within 10 feet of the boom, and the Boom Operator, with his head steadied on a chin rest, will then gingerly work the controls to make the connection needed for fuel transfer.

The work requires incredible teamwork, from the pilots up front to the Boom Operator and the fighter pilot.

"You give them that stable platform," said Master Sergeant Vince Jones. "Constant airspeed, constant altitude. We're not porpoising up and down, and they're coming in at a constant airspeed and closure rate. Not too fast, not too slow, which allows us to zoom in on our target for the boom."

The KC-135 can offload more fuel in eight minutes, than a gas station can pump in a day. This all happens, as the fighter jet is merely 20 feet below the stratotanker.

Air-to-Air refueling dates back to the 1920s, but it was not widely used until the Korean War and Vietnam Conflict. The technology allows the military plants to stay aloft, for a long as necessary, in order to carry out the mission.

"Many of our fighters have a limited range, and our ability to aerial refuel turns these from a local force into a force that can be use internationally and worldwide," said Colonel Tupper Daniels.

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