Refueling in midflight, even on simulator, is no easy task

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The idea is simple: Fly a 7-inch-diameter nozzle into an 8-inch-diameter air refueling receptacle on a C-17 Globemaster that's 50 feet away while traveling at 260 knots at 27,000 feet, and unload 4,000 pounds of fuel.

Or try it over the ocean in heavy weather, with a $2 billion B-2, when one twitch of the boom could scratch the delicate skin and make the stealth bomber more susceptible to enemy radar.

For someone who could barely master Pong or Space Invaders, it was a miracle I didn't wreak havoc with the nation's entire fleet of military cargo planes, fighter jets and bombers while struggling as the boom operator on a Boeing KC-767 tanker simulator.

With joysticks in both hands and a video display enhanced by wearing 3-D-style glasses, it wasn't easy to connect the boom from a flying gas station, as tankers are known, to a jet fighter that could be "bingo," or nearly out of fuel.

The simulator was part of Boeing's traveling KC-767 display that was parked Tuesday on Capitol Hill as the Air Force prepared to restart the competition for a new Air Force aerial-refueling tanker. It gave lawmakers and others an opportunity to take a closer look at a state-of-the art plane that Boeing hopes will win the $35 billion contract to start replacing the current Cold War-era tankers. The Boeing plane is vying with a tanker that's being built by a team of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the parent of Airbus, which would use an Airbus A330 airframe.

"Whatever you do, don't pull the red breakaway trigger," said an exceedingly patient Sean Martin, who used to fly as the boomer on KC-135s and KC-10s and now is working with Boeing on its new tanker. Pulling the red trigger flashes the tanker's lights and tells the plane that's waiting for fuel to break away or pull back immediately because of a problem.

Naturally, I pulled the red trigger two or three times for no good reason except basic incompetence.

The left-hand joystick moves the boom up and down and side to side. The right-hand joystick telescopes the boom in and out.

"The trick is flying the boom while telescoping it," Martin said.

Easy, right?

In the old days, Martin said, the boomer would lie on his stomach and move a pole to maneuver the boom. The boomer used a system of mirrors to track the movement. Now the boomer sits in front of a video monitor that receives feeds from five cameras that provide a "wingtip to wingtip view" of the plane that's awaiting refueling. The cameras also can be adjusted to give a better view at night than a boomer's eyes.

The call sign of the tanker I was "flying" was Rap73, while the C-17 was Charo34. Pilots are trained to take their planes to specific points beneath and behind the tankers and then hold steady, not watching the approaching boom but concentrating on staying in the proper position with the tankers.

The boomers fly the booms into the planes that need fuel.

Big planes, such as Charo34, approach slowly, at a foot a second. The bow wave they produce can jostle the boom until the planes are in position. Fighters are more nimble, performing what Martin called a "ballet" as they're refueled.

As Charo34 took position, I flew the boom over the receptacle, left, right, up, down. Slowly I got it centered, and Martin said to start telescoping the boom. Then I loosed it, and had to work again to get it centered. Finally, we connected.

During the refueling, the boom is on autopilot. Eventually, after more than a half-hour with some big planes, you hit the disconnect button. A boomer can repeat this on seven or more planes during a mission, depending on the size of the aircraft that are being refueled.

The tensest time for a boomer, Martin said, is when the approaching plane is running on fumes. There's also some pressure to get planes, especially fighters, refueled as quickly as possible, as the more time they spend with the tankers the less time they spend fighting.

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