Pilot's view

I’ve never been an aficionado of night flying. You can stumble into weather you would normally avoid in the daytime and it’s often more difficult to do things that are routine during the day. Additionally, you always hear noises that never seem to occur during daylight. For instance, air-to-air refueling (AAR), which is challenging in the daytime, requires flying at 300 knots while close to another aircraft filled with fuel, and they intend to “pass some gas” to you—in the dark!

To put AAR into perspective, imagine you are driving down the interstate at 70 miles an hour when you notice there’s a gas station at the next exit. You check your gauge and note you’re nearly empty. However, instead of stopping at that gas station and filling up, you do something different.

A-10

Sometimes, refueling collisions happen.

You see a tanker truck ahead driving in the same direction and at the same speed as you. You contact its driver and he clears you to get closer and continue driving in a “holding” position until you can speak with his station attendant. When the attendant calls to let you know it’s your turn, you drive to a “pre-refueling” position behind the tanker. Once stabilized there, the attendant clears you to a “refueling” position below a boom sitting at the end of the tanker with a hose protruding from it. You now drive close enough to allow the attendant to reel out that hose and connect it to your car’s fuel tank. Latches on your car trap the hose, allowing the attendant to refuel you. Note, you never slowed down during this procedure!

Now, let me put some of those terms I used above into those used when conducting AAR. The tanker trucks we use are aerial tankers such as the KC-135, KC-10, or the KC-46. However, we don’t have to find them; we have a planned rendezvous point, called an aerial refueling track, where we join up with them. After joining up, we fly on the tanker’s wing in an observation position waiting for our turn. While there, we open the refueling door exposing our refueling receptacle. When the attendant (the boom operator, AKA “the boomer”) clears us for refueling, we move from the observation position to the pre-contact position, which is one to two ship-lengths behind and slightly below the boom.

Once there, we stabilize in relation to the tanker. The boomer then clears us to the contact position and we move forward and stabilize in a position directly under the boom. The boomer then reels out some hose and, using winglets on the boom, literally flies it to plug the hose into our refueling receptacle. Contact occurs when the latches on our refueling receptacle clamp onto the hose, allowing the boomer to start pumping fuel.

While taking gas, we’re on a hot mic with the boomer, which allows him to give corrections to keep us in position. A stripe on the tanker’s centerline helps us remain aligned while director lights on the belly of the tanker show if we are in position. That is, they direct which way to move: up or down, forward or aft. If we don’t take the hint from the director lights, the boomer gives verbal directions—“forward five” or “up three” —telling us to move forward five feet or up three. When in the correct position, a green Captain’s bar lights up in the center of each of the director lights.

The boomer tells you how much fuel you took when you top-off. If not filling up, he tells you when you have received your planned offload. At that time, either you or the boomer can push a button to disconnect the hose. Although it might sound difficult, AAR is just another time when one flies in close formation. As you might imagine, it can be more challenging at night.

Pilot's view

Lining up on the tanker requires patience and precision.

I conducted my first AAR on a daytime mission in an A-10 and, since it is a single-seat aircraft, I was on my own. However, we were extensively briefed on the procedure before we launched with an instructor pilot (IP) leading three students. From his airplane, the IP made the required radio calls as he led us through the tanker rejoin and then demonstrated the observation, pre-contact, and contact positions. He then coached each of us as we made our initial hook-ups. The briefing and our preparation paid off; the three of us took our planned offload without any problems.

By the way, AAR in an A-10 has a unique feature. The refueling receptacle is positioned in front of the canopy and, as you sit in the cockpit, it’s below your waist. If a boomer is aggressive, you get the impression the hose is going to crash into you.

While doing night AAR out of Myrtle Beach AFB, SC, a squadron mate had to abort and make an emergency recovery after the boomer crashed the hose into his front windscreen. The thick glass only cracked, but it made for a few tense moments as he flew home and landed.

A few weeks after my first AAR, I flew my first night AAR sortie, again in an A-10. It was also thoroughly briefed and an IP once again led three students. It was challenging because the tanker’s position lights were dimmed while its rotating beacon and strobes were off (thank goodness!). However, the city lights of Tucson, AZ, which was south of our refueling track, did provide some illumination. We quickly realized the director lights played a more important role at night as there were few other clues regarding your position under the tanker.

That night refueling was the first of many I have flown, but a night AAR sortie that stands out for me happened when I commanded the 61st fighter squadron, the “Top Dawgs.” At the time, it was an F-16 training squadron at MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL; it’s currently at Luke AFB in Phoenix, AZ, training pilots to fly the F-35.

On this particular mission, I was leading two F-16Bs on a night training sortie with another IP and me in the back seats of our respective aircraft and student pilots occupying our front seats. The mission was to instruct night AAR on the way to the gunnery range, where we would instruct night weapons delivery.

We rendezvoused with the tanker shortly after takeoff. Another flight of two F-16s was still on the tanker when we arrived, so we went to the observation position on the wing opposite from them until they departed.

Before we started our refueling, the boomer advised they were experiencing some issues. He told us the boom was dropping a little when the hose was disconnected from the refueling receptacle. I quickly checked with the lead of the previous flight who stated they hadn’t experienced any problems.

F-16

F-16 pilots are flying blind when it comes to the refueling door.

With that in mind, I took control from the student and demonstrated a dry hook-up, allowing him to observe all the visual references at the pre-contact and contact positions. When I disconnected, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, so I returned to the observation position and the IP in the #2 airplane replicated what I had done for his student, thus giving my student another chance to observe the procedure. It was then my student’s turn on the boom and he showed he was a quick study by hooking up on his first try.

After getting our offload, the student disconnected from the boom and we immediately heard a loud thump behind me. I flinched and scanned the engine instruments to make certain everything was working properly. Everything appeared OK, but I took control of the airplane and moved back to the observation position and asked the other IP to look me over. He moved to where he was looking down on the top of my plane and radioed, “Looks OK boss.” After #2 got their offload, we headed to the range and dropped our bombs.

We returned to MacDill and practiced night landings until I called, “Uncle!” After parking, the student and I walked into the line shack and I informed maintenance they had a code-1 jet. However, my crew chief unexpectedly showed up and said, “Boss, you need to see this.”

I walked back out to the airplane with him, where he pointed to another crew chief sitting on the spine of the airplane while working on something behind the canopy. When the second crew chief climbed down, he handed me the blade antenna that sat immediately behind the cockpit, only a few feet behind my seat. It was bent over nearly 90 degrees and I could see it had been struck by something metallic; I reckoned the boom was the culprit and its condition explained the thump we heard earlier.

I asked, “You’re replacing this, right?” He assured me they already had another one on the way. I told him I was keeping the broken one.

The next day, I had that antenna mounted on a plaque with our squadron patch beside it. Underneath I placed a diagram (above) showing where the antenna had been on the airplane with a large Me! pointing to my seat in the rear cockpit. On a brass plate at the bottom, I had inscribed, “Night flying! Who said it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?” I sent it to the commander of the refueling squadron, but I never received a reply—some people have no sense of humor!

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26 replies
  1. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    Ah, memories. In a previous life I was one of the boomers operating the “hose,” which is really a tube. The boomer has control of the boom in three dimensions–up-down, left-right, and fore-aft. A control stick held in the right hand positions the flight controls (ruddevators) to achieve up-down/left-right control, and fore-aft control is via a lever actuating a hydraulic motor to extend and retract the tube.

    Here’s more to add to your scary story: The last nine inches of the tube–the nozzle–is mounted on a ball joint of sorts to allow for movement of the receiver while in contact. Without that flexibility, the nozzle could bind in the receptacle if the receiver position gets too far up/down/left/right. The problem is the joint is larger in diameter than the tube, and it hides the end of the nozzle from the boomer’s view. That means the boomer flies the boom into a position to make a contact based on where (s)he THINKS the nozzle is.

    BTW, there were cautions and warnings in our Dash 3 (the AAR manual back in my day) about the proximity of both the windshield on the A-10 and the antenna on the B-model F-16 to their respective receptacles. Both were around 18 inches, which kinda makes you think when you know the boomer can’t really see the last nine inches or so of the nozzle.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Mark, My hat is off to you and all the boomers who gave me gas, sometimes when it was critical (over the middle of the Atlantic in the weather) and sometimes on a dark and stormy night.

      Reply
  2. Chris Barker
    Chris Barker says:

    Thanks for this story. I might have been at MacDill at the time, serving as a RAF exchange officer on the Spikes during 88-90. I found USAF AAR very interesting, easier to plug than the RAF/USN method of probe and drogue, but more difficult to remain in the right place (I once “fell off” a KC135 which was heading into a low sun so I couldn’t see the lights – my excuse). I never had any problems while refuelling, although I found it difficult not to sidestep the probe as I approached it prior to being latched on. And I had the great joy of my wife being next to the boomer while refuelling when they had a wives’ day.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Chris, I arrived at MacDill from Kunsan (Korea) in December of ’86 and finished the I-course in March when I took over as the Chief of Training. I assumed command of the Top Dawgs in December of ’87 left to attend ICAF in July of ’89. I always made sure our squadron wives got aboard the tanker when they came to town.

      A couple of Bills served as Spike Lead while I was at MacDill and you probably knew both of them — Bill Stroud and Bill Clack. Bill Clack and I served together on the TAC Staff in the early 80’s.

      Never could see how you guys did the probe and drogue. The offset would have taken some getting used to.

      Reply
      • Chris Barker
        Chris Barker says:

        Dale, I served on the 62nd with both Bill Stroud and Bill Clack. Bill Stroud showed me his home in Arkansas as part of my acclimatisation to the US (:-)) on a cross country with our brand new C- models. I caused poor Bill Clack some problems when my student wingman got close to a 72nd formation which was heading for Avon Park – I engaged without a good sort – and the whole Wing had to listen to a lecture by the new DO on a Friday afternoon because of me. I learned about blue sky IFR from that!

        Probe and drogue: the offset and the bow wave off the nose . . .

        Reply
        • Dale Hill
          Dale Hill says:

          Chris, I must have missed that dressing down by the DO. BTW, you would have fit right in flying F-16’s in Korea. EVERY airborne aircraft was a target for an intercept and you had better be checking 6! A guy in the Pantons (35th FS) flew an intercept on a bogey and took a valid shot — turned out it was the President of South Korea in his official jet. So, this guy picked up a new callsign — “Lee Harvey” (Oswald)!

          The OG (Cash Jasczak) took the five squadron commanders of the 56th FW (the academic squadron cc was #5) and we went on a 4-ship (Bill and I in A-models, the other 4 in station wagons) XC to Holloman to interact with the Fighter Lead-In guys (just an excuse to go XC on a weekday, play some crud and get centrifuge training for the 4 who had not yet done it. While those 4 took their turn in the spin-&-puke carnival ride, Bill and I (we had already ridden the centrifuge) jumped in the back seat of some AT-38s and got some 2-V-2 with F-15s from the 49th FW. We actually toyed with the idea of joining the AT-38’s in our Vipers to make it a 4-v-2 and see how good they sorted. But, as it wasn’t briefed and may have become the subject of yet another Friday afternoon dressing-down, we decided discretion was the better part of valor. My AT-38 IP let me fly some and grabbing those throttles was a real shock — they felt like a toy after flying both A-10s and F-16s with their HOTAS features.

          Reply
          • Chris Barker
            Chris Barker says:

            You were clearly having way too much fun with the AT-38s :-). That senior office formation reminds me of one Cowboy Dulaney (I think I have that name right) on Northern Watch. He decided that smart bombs were not doing the trick in taking out the AAA in the orchards so he organised a four ship of Vipers to strafe them . . .

  3. David Eubanks
    David Eubanks says:

    Great story. Reminded me of my teaching air to air refueling in the C-141B to many many pilots. I was always trying various techniques to help pilots stay in position in the C-141B. Some pilots just didn’t figure things out. About one out of twenty could not get through the course. Maybe it was how close we were to the tanker, maybe it was the slow throttle response. As an instructor we had to take the 141 to each limit and stay there for a bit. I loved doing Vertial S’s with the tanker. I loved loved doing AR.

    Reply
  4. David Tyler
    David Tyler says:

    Great story! An additional complication with heavy receivers, like the B-52, C-5, or E-3, is the size of the onload. When 70,000 lbs or so of fuel is being moved form airplane to airplane, the weight, CG and flight characteristics of both are changing. It’s not uncommon for a receiver pilot to drop off and have to fall back to pre-contact and start over. Throw in some turbulence and an inop autopilot on the tanker, and everyone involved has “sweaty pits” when it’s finally all over.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      When refueling over the Atlantic in an A-10 (9.5 hours from the Azores to Bermuda!) I got in a PIO (side to side, not up and down) while in the contact position. We were in the soup and, with no horizon, I at first thought the tanker was doing small dutch rolls — and then I realized it was me! The boomer was GREAT as he never said a word and kept me connected the whole time. I eventually settled down and never got disconnected until I had my offload. A short while later we broke out of the weather and my next few hook-ups were much smoother.

      Reply
  5. JOHN PAUL DRAPER
    JOHN PAUL DRAPER says:

    Not to make light of your AR in an A-10 Dale (I love that plane) but if you really wanted excitement try AR behind a KC-97 in a RB-47 at night in weather. When refueling RB-47s, we were flying at such low speeds that directional stability was difficult to maintain. The unintended sideways oscillations this sometimes caused would get the hearts of both tanker and tankee crews pumping. The initial solution was to have the tanker plug the boom into the receptacle on the receiving aircraft. Then both the KC-97 and the receiver aircraft would fly together in a shallow dive attitude to maintain enough airspeed to avoid the receiver aircraft stalling while plugged to the boom. This downhill ride was referred to as “tobogganing.”

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      John, we Hawg drivers can identify with ‘tobogganing’. We had to do it all the time as ‘topped off’ (especially when we were carrying two 600 gallon wing tanks) and started falling off the boom because we couldn’t keep up. Fortunately, the tankers were sympathetic. Another embarrassing situation was when the tanker would turn early on the track expecting us to roll out right behind them. We would have to ask them to do a few ‘S’ turns so we could close up — we had our throttles full forward, but couldn’t get going any faster! I loved the Hawg, it was the ‘Hummer’ of the Air Force. I also loved flying the F-16, the Formula One of the Air Force!

      Reply
  6. Jim Roberts
    Jim Roberts says:

    Dale,

    Great accounts of AAR. From the perspective of a KC-10 aircraft commander during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I can only say we loved you Warthog and Viper drivers. Heck, we even loved the B-52’s, and anything else designed to rain down hell on the enemy. I got the KC-10 job in the reserves after 11 years of active duty, first as a T-38 IP, then a U-2 pilot. Like some other “single-seat” pilots in the force, I tended to look down my nose at “tanker pukes,” then one day I realized, “I are one!” We had a little patch on our flight suits that said NKAWTG…”No one kicks ass without tanker gas.” The thing I liked most about the KC-10 was that the aircraft is itself air-refuelable, so we could onload fuel from other tankers when necessary. And it was a kick pulling up in a KC-10 behind another tanker and hand-flying as a receiver aircraft on the boom….often at night, and sometimes while dodging thunderstorms. On a typical “fighter drag” from the east coast to the middle east, we would take off at max gross weight (590,000 lbs) carrying up to 190,000 lbs of fighter support gear and personnel on the main deck, with fuel tanks topped until we reached max takeoff weight. With four fighters on our wing, we’d fly for several hours eastbound over the Atlantic, periodically refueling the fighters, then rendezvous with another tanker and top off our own tanks. Then we’d continue east, refueling the fighters every hour or so until, nearing Spain, we’d rendezvous with another tanker for yet another “top off,” then continue to destination with the fighters and all their troops and cargo. That airplane was the best investment the USAF ever made in a tanker, and I’m sorry the KC-46 is such a high-tech disaster. Hopefully some day the genius engineers will figure out how to make its remote vision refueling system actually function. Not to end on a negative note, and to prove that tanker pilots do have a sense of humor, I’ll share a “dark and stormy night” tale of refueling a B-2 stealth bomber, somewhere off the Pacific coast of South America. This was in the mid 90’s, and the B-2 was on a non-stop round-robin flight from its home base in Kansas, down to Santiago Chile, do do some low passes and show the flag at an international airshow. Then, without landing, they would reverse course back to Kansas. Their mission required multiple air-ro-air refuelings, south- and north-bound. At the time it was a test of endurance of the aircraft and crew, as the flight was over 24 hours in duration. This “extreme duration” flight foreshadowed many such missions during the “War on Terror” after 9-11. Our KC-10 was one of several tankers tasked this night for the refuelings. We departed Kelly AFB in San Antonio after midnight, and made our way south to meet up several hours later with the bomber south of the equator. The plan was for a “tail chase” rendezvous, with our tanker closing from the rear and overflying the B-2 until we were a mile in front, at which time they would move in for a hook up with the boom. As time for the join up neared, it was around 5 AM local time and dark as the inside of a cow, the only light being frequent and impressive lightning flashes from thunderstorms along our route. When we were about 40 miles behind the bomber and in radio contact, the B-2 pilot reported that they had lost their weather radar, and asked if we could suggest a heading for thunderstorm avoidance. We had a clear weather radar picture, and could “see” the position of the B-2 ahead of us by using in-cockpit air-to-air navigational aids. It was simple to visualize the situation and give a recommended heading around the storms. But I just couldn’t help myself, and told the stealth bomber pilot, “We have a good paint on the storms and we see you on radar, so turn right about 20 degrees and you should find a hole ahead.” There was a very long pause on the radio, and I could just see the B-2 pilot thinking, “WTF….He has us on RADAR?” Then his reply, “OK, thanks… 20 degrees right. And we turned off the cloaking device there for a minute so you could pick us up.” Of course, he figured out how we knew his position, but for just a minute there I had him going. After join-up, the refueling went smoothly, and I will never forget the sight from the cockpit as that B-2 passed us on the left as he sped up and headed for Santiago. Backlit by flashing thunderstorms painted red in the sunrise, it looked like a scene from science fiction. When we finally landed at our home base in California, after a 14-hour mission, it was sobering to think that those B-2 guys still had hours to go in their flight home.

    Reply
    • Chris Barker
      Chris Barker says:

      That was an exciting story as well. I’d never have liked either of those jobs, tanker or long-range bomber. My bum had a limit, you see ;-)

      Reply
    • Dale
      Dale says:

      Jim, I too was a T-38 IP (Vance from ’73-’78). I also enjoyed refueling behind the KC-10 — if the boomer didn’t like where I had my Viper, he could reposition me with the boom! Never made anything like a 14- or 24- hour mission, but a 9.5 strapped into the ACES II seat in my A-10 on a flight from the Azores to Bermuda was enough for my 1.5 butt!

      Reply
  7. Cal W. Tax
    Cal W. Tax says:

    Boots, another fine essay! I spent many a day and night behind tankers, from KC-97’s to KC-135’s and we never let a tanker pilot buy a drink at the bar when our guys were there. I refueled from Probe & Drogue (aka known as Poke and Duck) and Boom/Receptacle and the Boom is far superior but it’s really nice to have both systems, like the F-105’s I flew had.
    We could take fuel on from either system and that saved my bacon on more than one occasion coming home from a combat mission. My thanks go out to all the KC- pilots and crews who saved many lives and continue to do so!

    Reply

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