Twenty-six thousand feet in the air, Master Sgt. Christopher Mack was face-to-face with a half-million-pound C-17 Globemaster III, which was gulping 20,000 pounds of fuel through a metal tube above northern Kentucky.
The 1950s-era KC-135 Stratotanker — designed to refuel massive, globe-spanning B-52 Stratofortress bombers in mid-air — jostled ever so slightly in a choreographed dance above the earth while Mack controlled a video game-like control stick in the back of flying tanker.
Lying flat on his stomach and peering through a small window at the C-17 just 14 feet away, Mack made sure the extended refueling boom stayed secure above the cockpit as the planes flew at nearly 400 mph.
It was all clockwork for Mack, a member of the 434th Air Refueling Wing temporarily based at Wright-Patterson. The Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., refueling unit is at Wright-Patt through mid-July during runway construction work at Grissom.
“Today was very easy,” Mack, of Cedar Lake, Ind., said Wednesday as the KC-135 streaked backed to the Ohio base. “The two pilots of the C-17 were very experienced.”
The precision flying depends on being at the right place at the right time and airmanship skills when they are needed most. The KC-135 flew in a 14-mile-long racetrack-like orbit in the air waiting for the jet. C-17 pilots see lights underneath the refueler to guide the hook up.
The C-17 has “fly-by-wire” controls that give pilots greater maneuverability. “It literally flies like a 500,000-pound sports car,” said Col. Jeff McGalliard, commander of the 445th Airlift Wing and a former KC-135 pilot.
The 434th Air Refueling Wing, the largest in the Air Force Reserve with 16 tankers, and the 445th Airlift Wing, which calls Wright-Patterson home, practiced the aerial ballet because both are frequently drawn into real-world missions where fuel is the lifeblood of operations and means survival above and on the battlefield.
“It’s pretty neat, it’s impressive, it never gets old,” said Maj. Frank Saul, 34, a C-17 instructor pilot from the Columbus area in the other plane on the mission.
Wednesday’s mission isn’t always so easy. Mack recalled refueling an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack jet laden with bombs too heavy to keep up with the tanker in a mission over Libya about two years ago.
“We were actually pulling him along.” he said.
Tankers fly day or night and in all kinds of weather, pilots and crew members said.
Without the tankers, the Air Force fleet can’t do its job, said Capt. Ben Strader, a KC-135 pilot from Columbia City, Ind. Planes need gas to span continents without stopping, and fighters need fuel to protect ground troops or to strike targets with heavy bombs.
“Basically, no one really flies too far without tanker gas,” said Strader, 35, a five-time deployer.
Flights “down range,” or into the war zone in Afghanistan, are routine for both Air Force Reserve wings.
Many of the aircrew have flown over Iraq and Afghanistan. The airlift wing flies cargo and aeromedical evacuations, and the refuelers gas up thirsty planes or bring the injured back home from war.
“In the war zone, our missions can be very long,” Mack said, sometimes exceeding 12 hours. The heat and fatigue make everything a little harder. “It all makes it difficult,” he said.
Crews fly where they are needed to keep airmen aloft.
“When called upon, we have to do the job perfectly every time,” said Maj. Rob Schneider, 39, a KC-135 instructor pilot from Cincinnati who in his civilian career flies for Delta Airlines.
The KC-135s are old. One that flew Wednesday, dubbed “Let’s Roll,” was built in 1957, and the last airplane rolled off the assembly line in 1965. The Air Force will buy 179 KC-46 Pegasus tankers to replace part of the aging fleet of 414 KC-135s, but the workhorse refueler will not be retired for decades, said Col. Douglas Schwartz, commander of the refueling unit.
“I’m here to tell you we’re going to be flying the KC-135 for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s phenomenal. There’s plans to go out another 40 years with the KC-135.”