Fear of Fueling
Since the start of the war our crew has logged over 100 hours in Iraqi airspace. We've flown enough miles to circle the globe several times. While nothing is routine, we are a little more adjusted now to being in hostile airspace. The things that previously caused us a burst of adrenaline (friendly missile launches that looked like surface to air fire, random tracers reaching skyward, the moon) are now more or less commonplace. We keep an eye on them, but a less anxious eye than before. Some of the comforting signs of normalcy (an occasional Hawaiian shirt worn over a flight suit, pushup contests on the floor of the jet) are seen again.
That could be why the pilot called me forward during the second in-air refueling yesterday. I've always been uncomfortable with what our pilot calls the "ballet of elephants." I am a firm believer in vertical and horizontal separation of aircraft, and he's taken it upon himself to show me there's nothing to fear.
We'd been in the air since evening, and unbeknownst to me, at work in the back with my window covered tightly, the sun had risen and was already filling the cockpit and burning the endless desert below us. Blinking, I felt my way to the observer's seat and buckled myself in.
After I'd plugged my headset into the comm system the pilot explained the plan for meeting the tanker. We would continue describing a small circle in the sky as the tanker finished a larger orbit, fueling its current customers. The navigator would adapt our speed and the size of our circle so that when the tanker finished it would be just ahead of us. We would simply roll out of our turn and find ourselves positioned to take fuel. As he explained I heard the nav and the copilot in the background, mentioning the tanker, "chicks in tow," and discussing its current position.
I looked in the direction they indicated and picked a small speck out of the sunshine. I squinted at it until it resolved itself into the distinct shape of the tanker accompanied by two fighters, one on the boom, and one off its wingtip. The perigee of our orbits brought us within a few miles of each other - close enough to see the fighter pilots in their cockpits, and bring the air-superiority-gray of the aircraft into sharp relief against the flat light reflecting off the desert. It was a breathtaking sight, but not the last I'd see that morning.
We held our gentle turn long enough for me to begin recognizing features on the ground. Through binoculars I watched black rivers of basalt - ancient lava flows - roll in and out of view. An occasional lonely road stretched from horizon to horizon, and in one place (a route of our advance?) countless sets of vehicle tracks left shadows across the undulating dunes.
Then it was our turn for gas. Our navigator brought us out of our turn about 5 miles behind and a little below the tanker. I watched over the pilot's left shoulder as the big jet got closer and closer - until it filled the little window above our heads, and my fingers left grooves in the armrests of my chair. The boom projected toward us, creeping forward until I was looking straight up into it; a nozzle about 8 inches in diameter bobbing gently in the wind blasting between our aircraft. The copilot began calling out the position of the boom, (over the nose... over the throttles...) allowing the pilot to know its location while keeping his larger perspective and monitoring our position with respect to the tanker. I watched the face of the boom operator peering at us from his tiny portal in the back of his jet. I found I could gauge the closeness of his nozzle to the receptacle above and behind our heads by the expression of concentration on his face. There was a loud thump-clunk, and we were connected.
The connection of the boom completes a comm circuit allowing the boom operator to talk to our flight deck without broadcasting over a radio. The operator asked us our tail number and base of origin - accounting for the destination of the several-score thousand gallons of gas he was already flowing into our tanks. That brief exchange, and an occasional, "Up four..." or “Down two..." were the only words exchanged. The flight engineer in his swivel seat to my right distributed the arriving weight evenly across our jet, helping the pilot maintain level flight.
And he had plenty to do in that regard. A set of lights on the belly of the jet above us, activated by the boom operator, allowed our pilot to know whether to advance or retard our position with respect to the tanker. I watched, waiting for the pilot to use throttles to adjust our position, but he relied on far more subtle means. This is something those of us who live in the back of the jet always appreciate. A pilot who accomplishes refueling without constantly speeding up and slowing down goes a long way toward preventing what flight surgeons like to refer to as "stomach awareness" on the part of the mission crew. With hours of mission to perform before landing, the last thing anyone wants is airsickness. Even for those without the problematic connection between stomach and inner ear, being on the same fight as someone who is sick can be very unpleasant. Little things like this give us confidence in our pilot.
It's always the little things that add up to significant impressions. Rarely are our opinions formed as the result of grand gestures or big statements. Our pilot formed a favorable impression of the tanker crew on just such a small detail. "This is an experienced guy," he commented via intercom. He explained that the tanker had canted the refueling orbit slightly, causing his plane to block the sun from our eyes. The copilot, who'd folded a chart and was ready to use it as a sun block for the pilot, registered his approval with a grunt.
This tiny gesture was greatly appreciated by all of us in the cockpit, but perhaps by me most of all. Aside from not having to squint painfully into the sun, which was nice, I was comforted by the fact that in spite of everything that was required to support this monstrous imposition on all the physical laws (It still surprises me that these ponderous machines fly, let alone can be maneuvered so precisely, and under such difficult conditions) someone had the presence of mind to consider something so insignificant.
And when we had received the last of the fuel required to complete our mission and we broke right, I watched the giant that had fueled us slew away to the left. Within seconds it had dwindled to a speck. In a second more it was gone, swallowed by the immensity of sky and desert. With it went my fear of aerial refueling.
As always, and in constantly renewed ways, I am amazed to find myself a part of the finest Air Force the world has ever known.