Friday, February 07, 2014

The flying gas stations.

So because OldAFSarge put up this great post on aerial refueling, I figured I could dust off an older post that I did a few years back when I got to get up close and personal with an Air Force tanker.

Back in 2011, a good friend arranged it so that he, I and his kids could drop in at Eilson AFB outside of Fairbanks, Alaska where we got to see this wonderful 1963-vintage KC-135. For those of you not in the know, that's a tanker based on the Boeing 707 airframe. It gives gas to other aircraft in the air.
This one's up on jacks for landing gear work. It weighs 115,000lbs empty.
Here's that bit again. Cycling the gear five times to make sure it works right.

The business end of an aerial tanker.

Or the view that one or two readers might be more familiar with:

Now THAT is an engine. The KC-135 has four, but can remain flying on JUST ONE.

The cockpit. Note the newer glass display panels. The old Flight Engineer position has been eliminated as well.
People often forget the "C" in KC-135. They haul cargo, too. Here's the cargo hold.
Always take pride in who you are and what you do.

Back in the boom control cockpit. The boom operator works these controls while lying on his stomach on a special bench or couch.
A bit more complicated than your average self-serve pump.

Looking back from out on the wing.
It was an excellent opportunity to see one of these classic workhorses up close, and my only regret was that they would not let me take it for a hop or two around the pattern.

Special thanks to the 168th Air Refueling Wing.


  1. Nice report on a grand old bird.

  2. Sweet! Great pics and a fine story.

    (And thanks for the link!)

  3. Fortunately, I never got to see that view. (It's a little high and the boomer might get a bit edgy). Refueling in the F-4 took a bit of getting used to. The fuel was primarily loaded in the fuselage, and so your center of gravity changed as you took on gas. So, you were constantly trimming. Additionally, depending on the altitude, you might run out of power as you started to fill up. It was always considered poor form to ask the tanker driver to give you a couple, so the technique was to slip on throttle into min burner and after it lit (which could take a bit) pull the other throttle back. Depending on a lot of factors, you could very quickly get to the forward edge of the envelope which makes everybody nervous. Additionally, the canopy bow in the Phantom was huge and for most guys it covered most of the tanker when in the contact position. Makes it difficult to fly formation when you can't see the other aircraft. So the technique was to either run your seat up so you could see the tank from above the canopy bow or run it down and maintain position from below. Which meant either you were reaching waaay down for the stick and flying it that way or the top of the stick seemed to be right below your throat. Either way making small control corrections took a bit of skill. Night time made this even more fun, throw in weather and the refuel was frequently one of the more challenging parts of the mission.
    Fortunately, the Eagle was much more simple. First the fuel was loaded in the wings primarily, so center of gravity was much easier to maintain. Second the jet had an auto trim function, you just held the stick where you wanted it for a short period (I don't recall the spec) and the computer would trim out all control pressure. Finally, the refueling receptacle was off the left intake, so all you had to do was line with the right wing root of the tanker, then drive forward until the canopy bow had the tanker engines just above it and you were in position. At the time I was in the jet, the 135s had the old engines, so the Eagle had WAY more thrust and maintaining position was never a problem. Don't know if that's a factor with the re-engined tankers.

    1. Some people will look back on their life and regret never having done anything exciting or worthwhile. I'm not thinking you'll ever have that problem.

  4. Great birds, but they DO have their own set of problems...

  5. Well, if that sign reflects the actual tail number of the aircraft you saw, it's a 51 year old airframe for starters, rebuilt to be sure, but not new.

  6. Very cool post. I remember the first time I saw a plane hook up to another place for mid air refueling (in a movie, not in real life) and being in absolute awe at what a genius idea that was and what skill it took to be so steady to line up like that. Some things are just plain cool. This still amazes me any time I see it. Oh and I guess the plane is neat too. ;-)

  7. Heh. Nothing like receiving fuel from an airplane that when empty weighs less than half what your maximum fuel load could be (C-5 Galaxy could carry 332,500 lbs of fuel, all in the wings). And when we nuzzled into position, if we came in too fast, it could throw the KC's autopilot off with the bow-wave).
    Or even scarier, come hauling up behind the tanker with four giant props slinging around. Pulling the throttle on a C-130 slows the plane quickly, and I had several tankers call "Breakaway" when we came screaming up underneath/behind, just before we slowed down. And yes, some C-130s have in-flight refueling receptacles (EC/MC/AC/HC-130s)
    Great pics and story!

    1. Oh I do loves me some C-5 and C-130s. And flying out of Martinsburg, WV, I see plenty of both. Glad to have your input and experience here.

    2. Google Accounts dorks-up my login. It is I, Wandering Neurons...

  8. Spent three years of my youth as a dependent at Eielson 61-63. The Cuban missile crisis happened while we were there. One winter night a KC-135 crashed on takeoff, killing the crew and the guard at the base gate. The biggest piece of it left was one main landing gear. We were guarded by F-102's on alert and a Nike missile site out in the hills. Interesting times.