The Thirsty Birds

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“The Thirsty Birds” (October 1989, Air Force ROTC)

The KC135 refueller airplane cruised down the taxiway. I sat in a seat near the front so I had a view inside the cockpit as we taxied along. Through the open cockpit door I could see the pilots and navigator still flipping switches, testing warnings, and reading off checklist items even as we taxied. The pavement was uneven, so the plane was constantly bouncing slightly, quickly up and down, the flight crew bouncing slightly in their seats as they spoke over the noise. We taxied onto the runway, the pavement stretching out to form a seemingly unending road in front of us, fading to a vanishing point far away. We sat there a second, and then must have gotten takeoff clearance because the engines suddenly advanced to full power, past a whine to a screaming crescendo, then into a thundering roar, and the mammoth airplane began to accelerate under the influence of seventy-thousand pounds of thrust.

“Yeee-Hooooo!” someone in the cockpit shouted. There was something about an incredibly knowledgeable person, sitting in the front of a two-hundred-thousand pound aircraft, costing millions of dollars, tearing down the runway, shouting “yee-hoo” like an overexcited Texas hick that was funny. I guess the guys in the cockpit were in charge, they were professionals, and they were having a blast. If they wanted to shout to yee-hoo” when those engines surged to life they could damn well do it. So a joyful “Yee-hoo” it was from the flight deck and we were off, shooting down the runway like gangbusters… a child’s’ toy on steroids. A hundred and fifty or so miles per hour and the pilot pulled back on the yoke. The entire aircraft suddenly pitched up and we really were off into the wild blue yonder.
The cockpit was crowded. With the pilot, copilot, navigator, and four or five cadets everybody was kind of leaning on each other amongst the equipment to get a look at what was going on. The flight crew were in rugged green flight suits, accompanied with all kinds of velcro pockets, pens, pencils, checklists, headphones, etc. The cadets were heavily clad in air force uniforms, right down to the heavy dark blue overcoats. We each had an emergency oxygen kit hanging at our sides in case the whole thing were to just collapse. My eyes carefully scanned the cockpit. First of all, everything was in slight motion. There was a constant, rhythmic vibration of the large airplane, a kind of bouncing that left a pilots’ gloved hand bouncing up and down uncertainly as he reached for a switch on the console. A glance at the airspeed indicator at the navigators’ station indicated somewhat over for hundred miles per hour. Soundproofing had been sacrificed for weight savings and there was a constant rushing of air sliding across the fuselage and colliding with the windscreens merely five feet in front of us. You could hear the scream of the four turbine engines on the wings outside. Everything was gray, dark green, and heavy duty. There was metal everywhere, padding attached along the walls and roof of the cockpit, panels with emergency this or that spray-painted on them in that stenciled lettering that the military uses. There were heavy duty controls, instruments, knobs, on black metal panels, switches, air nozzles, extra oxygen packs all over the cockpit. There were wires snaking visibly in bundles across the walls, held together by fasteners amongst the ever-present green padding and emergency boxes and kits. Amongst this vast array of heavy-duty equipment were the windows, merely a twelve inch high break in the assembly. It was interesting to look out into the vast blue sky spread out in front of us from the crowded, complex environment of the cockpit.

I noticed suddenly that I was leaning against a black panel full of switches myself, and rapidly backed off, kind of shoving the person next to me. The navigator was talking to a couple of cadets crowded around his station, explaining the current position and speed of the airplane on a map that was taped to his table. His voice was raised close to a yell as he spoke to them, and he would occasionally pull one earphone away from his head and lean over to a cadet to hear a question.

I directed my attention forwards. The pilots were talking to each other over their intercoms, speaking into little microphones at their lips, the sound being transmitted electronically to the other pilots’ headset. The pilot would say something, looking over at the copilot even though he didn’t have to because their voices were being transmitted through their headphones, and the copilot would frown for a second, then realize what needed to be done and check a gauge or flip a switch. The pilot would nod and look back outside. The copilot had a Diet Pepsi propped on his instrument console amongst the oxygen hoses and wiring. It didn’t seem to out of place with the haphazard, rugged placement of everything else in the cockpit. He took a drink and put the can back, the Pepsi no doubt somewhat fizzed from the rhythmic vibration of the airplane. The pilot asked the copilot something else over their private intercom. The copilot moved his Pepsi can to read a gauge behind it, gave the pilot the number, and replaced the can. They sat back, the autopilot apparently under control, and just scanned the array of instruments. I recognized most of the stuff from small planes and airliners, but here everything was just tougher, more rugged. There was more heavy-duty equipment welded or strapped into place at any available corner. I doubted that any two KC135 cockpits were exactly the same. I asked the pilots a couple of questions and they shouted back responses over the rush of the wind and screaming engines that were just outside. The Pepsi had apparently gotten to the copilot, because he gave a laugh and yelled that he had to go to the bathroom. He undid all his seat belts, oxygen hoses, whatever, took off his headset, and managed to wriggle out of his seat without knocking into anything critical and slide between several cadets and out of the cockpit. The pilot invited a cadet to come up and take the copilots’ seat. The cadet knocked a headset down from a clip on the wall of the cockpit as he slid into the seat, but the navigator shouted not to worry about it.

I decided to talk to the navigator for awhile. I squeezed past several cadets to the navigators’ station and asked him where we were and when we meet the four fighter jets that we would refuel. He explained to me on the map where everybody was, and that we were currently about eighty miles from the fighters, heading straight for them, and them heading straight for us. Of course, if we were to meet head on, the fighters would whiz right past us at eight hundred miles per hour… there would hardly be enough time for an aerial refueling. There had to be a way, therefore to get us all at the same place… and facing the same direction. The way to accomplish this was as follows: When we were about fifteen miles away from the fighters that we would refuel, we would start a turn away from them. (turning away from them, since we were now flying in the opposite direction as they were, would put us facing the same direction as the fighters) If this turn to the same direction the fighters were facing was started at just the right time, we would complete our turn and be facing the same direction just as the planes intercepted us. When to start that turn was the crucial thing. If we started the turn to early, we would be facing in the right direction, but the fighters would have to catch up to us. If we started our turn to late, the fighters would fly right past us… fast… as we were still turning.
The navigator waited for awhile, checking his watch, radar, and other instruments before giving the signal to the pilot. The two-hundred-thousand pound tanker rolled to the left. I felt heavy as our aircraft pulled around the turn. The A-7 Corsairs, which were the fighter planes that we would be refueling that day, were near. “First one to see them gets a prize!” the pilot shouted. We all craned our necks, trying to get a good look out the cockpit windows and into the sky to identify the incoming aircraft. Nobody could see them, but the radar said they were near. Soon the turn was completed, and the Corsairs were somewhere close behind us, catching up. But how could they be right behind us? I never even saw them! Oh well. I decided to get to the back of the plane and look out a window there… see if I could catch a glimpse of the four fighter planes a long ways away.

I went back, found a little window, and looked out. It had to be one of the biggest shocks of my life. There was a fighter RIGHT THERE! He was parked right beside us! Not more that fifty feet off our wing! The mammoth A-7 Corsair was seemingly hovering right outside, hardly appearing to be moving. I looked at the pilot. He was staring straight at us, his gray helmet, tinted sun visor, and black oxygen mask all in clear detail as hung there. His aircraft was in constant, slight motion as he constantly corrected to hold his plane in formation. His Corsair, a gargantuan old fighter aircraft, rocking in small, tentative motions as he held his position. The pilot just stayed there for awhile, holding his position beside us, his twenty thousand pound aircraft seemingly suspended… tentatively, in midair as one of his three buddys refueled behind us. I could see the fighter pilot look down at his instruments for a minute, and as he did his plane began to drift away from us. When he looked back up again he realized with a start that he had drifted astray and slung his plane back into position. (Actually I think they may move away intentionally while they look at their instruments to avoid a possible collision.) All of his corrections were small, so his plane was usually in small degrees of motion, but every now and then he would really drop a wing, the whole fighter would roll suddenly for a frightening split second, and then he would be in position again. Suddenly another Corsair appeared from behind and below us, taking up position beside the one that I had been watching. The new one had evidently just gotten gas, because you go behind and below a KC135 to refuel.

I went all the way to the back of our plane where the refueling area was. The way it worked was a long pole, maybe thirty feet, hung behind our airplane like a tail. The fighter would come up, carefully, and attach onto the “tail” or boom, as it is called, and fuel would go along through the boom and into the fighter plane as it held its’ position behind us. The problem was that the fighter plane had to be extremely accurate to maneuver so perfectly as to put the refueling receptacle of his airplane right onto the end of the boom on our airplane. It would be like driving your car down the highway with you gas cap open and maneuvering your entire car so that a gas pump nozzle on another car beside yours went right into your tank… except that in this case you would be driving on a highway that moves with turbulence, is three dimensional, and you would be driving over four hundred miles per hour. To make things easier to some small degree, there is a person called a boom operator who can move the refueling boom some so that if a fighter comes up and “parks” behind and below the refueling airplane and just holds still, the boom operator can maneuver the boom right into the receptacle of the fighter, or receiving airplane. Because the boom is at the very back and bottom of the refueling airplane, the boom operator lies on his stomach at the back of the plane, looking back out a window, and moves the boom with a little joystick to “steer” it right into the receiving plane. I lay down next to the boom operator, our shoulders touching, and looked down and behind us. It is a rather odd sensation to lie on your stomach, facing aft, looking straight DOWN THROUGH GLASS to the Earth thirty thousand feet below, particularly when you can see the crops and cities and forests constantly moving away from you from your own significant speed. When looking out the SIDE window of an airliner there is no sensation of speed at all, bet when you are lying down looking straight DOWN, with the edges of the glass window right at your neck level, you constantly feel the forwards (seemingly backwards) motion of the plane as the scenery slips into view underneath you at the edge of the window. The refueling boom was attached right under us and extended thirty feet back.

Suddenly a Corsair slid into position under us… there was empty sky for miles below us, then for a scary split second there was a mammoth metal machine, a dark hulking shape sliding on smooth invisible air from the side, and before the brain could even recover from the shock of the sudden presence of the behemoth and place it as a fighter aircraft the Corsair was in position below us, constantly maneuvering slightly, wavering left and right, up and down, surging fore and aft slightly. He edged slowly up into place behind us, the front of his plane now only thirty feet away. The body of the fighter was framed against the earth moving below at four hundred miles per hour thirty thousand feet down. Because we were moving at the same speed, the fighter seemed to be hovering save the constant rearward flow of the earth. It was awesome to look at this dark drab steel machine, seemingly holding its’ thousands of pounds of weight in unstable suspension a mere thirty feet below… and then allow your gaze to fall down thirty THOUSAND feet to the planet, rotating noticeably, sliding away beneath us. I guess it was the combination of me lying on my stomach above nothing but a sheet of glass and six miles of air and the constant unstable motion of the Corsair, but I had the impression that the whole lot of us would fall to earth any second.
He pulled up a little closer; his airplane in constant motion as he constantly corrected to stay right under us. I could of course make out every detail of the airplane as he hung there, the pilot looking up at us from thirty feet away, eyes hidden by his dark visor. He looked almost inhuman in his gray helmet, dark visor, and black oxygen mask. No part of his face was visible. A cover on the top of his plane retracted, revealing the hole where the gas went in. I had a headset on so I could listen to the conversation between pilot and boom operator.
“O.K., I’m in position now. Give it a try.”
“Yep. I’ve got you… I’m lowering the boom.”
The boom operator moved his joystick jerkily, the boom jumping around in the turbulence, and finally into the hole of the fighter.
“I’ve got a lock on down here. I’m taking on fuel.”
“Roger. Everything looks fine. Try and hold it a bit higher for me.”
“O.K. Is that better?”
“Affirmative.”
The plane hung there for about a minute before the pilot said he had had enough. There was a hydraulic hiss underneath us as the boom detached from the fighter. The pilot saluted us and rolled his plane over on its’ side. Immediately the behemoth slid through empty space over to the side at the same speed with which it had arrived. The boom operator retracted the boom a bit, ready for the next Corsair to move into position for its’ fill-up.

I stepped out of the hole and made my way past the several other cadets that were waiting for a second look. Apparently that had been the last plane, because when I looked out of the little side window again there was nobody there. The four Corsairs had drunk their fill and were on their way. Our tanker rolled into a steep bank and headed back to base.

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