MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
There’s a saying in the Air Force about refueling aircraft, something along the lines of nothing accomplishes mission success without tanker aircraft gas. This saying rings true in Tampa. Refueling aircraft such as MacDill Air Force Base’s KC-135 Stratotanker are vital to mission success and keeping other military aircraft flying all over the globe.
Aboard the KC-135 on a typical flight sits a pilot, co-pilot and a boom operator, whose priority in-air is to deliver fuel to the connecting aircraft. Boom operators begin their refueling careers at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, but their training never stops.
“Training here depends on the person, the person has to be able to show that they’re competent enough to fly so they don’t mask mistakes and they don’t freeze up,” explained Staff Sgt. Cory Drummond Jr., a 50th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator instructor trainer. “We can’t afford to freeze up in our job, so we constantly train so that we get the best of the best, no matter what.”
Drummond stated that incoming Airmen from Altus typically spend four to six months in upgrade training; taking advantage of the time to learn their career, fly with instructors and test their competency in MacDill’s Boom Operator Weapon System Trainer, a simulator for boom operators to hone their air refueling craft.
“The BOWST is one of the most essential pieces of a boom operator’s career because in house, there’s no danger,” said Drummond. “I can push Airmen to the limit mentally so that they gain that experience and prepare for when something goes wrong. We can make sure that everybody is ready and willing to do the job as fast as possible and keep the pilots that don’t see what goes on in the back as safe as can be.”
Boom operators’ responsibilities extend past their air refueling qualifications, maintaining roles as fully ready and able aircrew members. As aircrew, they build working relationships with not only the pilots steering the aircraft, but the 6th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Airmen who keep the aircraft up and running. Operators remain diligent in pre-flight and in-flight checks to ensure each flight flows as smoothly as possible.
“90% of my job is backing up the pilots and the other 10% is refueling,” confessed Airman 1st Class Malachi Greman, a 50th ARS boom operator who completed upgrade training in February. “There is so much going on as far as checking gauges, I’ve heard pilots tell us at the end of the day that the smartest one on the jet is the boom operator because he has a bird’s eye view of what is going on. They’re flying the jet but we can see anything that pops up so it’s very vital to be a good crewmember as back up to the pilots.”
Fully qualified boom operators know the ins and outs of the aircraft they spend hours at a time in, and take responsibility for aircrew procedures from take-off to landing. They are in constant communication with the pilots, keeping 100% situational awareness to the status of their flight and see to the pilots’ needs in-air.
Boom operators take pride in not only having a front row seat in viewing their role in the Air Force’s mission, but understanding the widespread reach of their mission responsibilities.
“Everybody’s playing a certain part to fulfill the mission and being a vital role player as a boom operator makes me feel a lot better because I’ve always wanted to play a major part in something, no matter what it is,” said Greman. “To be able to give back to the Air Force and give people freedom is really gratifying – to be called a fully mission qualified boom operator is definitely a long accomplishment and I’m just excited for what the future has in store for me.”
The KC-135 has a maximum capacity of 200,000 pounds of fuel to accomplish its air refueling mission, and boom operators train relentlessly to deliver on that mission. As the saying goes, nothing kicks tail without tanker fuel.