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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: A navigator's journey

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tara Fadenrecht
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight in August 2016.)

His grandfather sparked an interest and planted a dream of a future in aviation in him at a young age, but before this dream could become a reality, he first had to navigate through obstacles along the way.

"My grandfather was a naval aviator and he used to tell me all kinds of stories," said Capt. Ryan Cobb, 384th Air Refueling Squadron navigator. "I think at one point he actually had me memorizing the entire pre-flight checklist for one of the airplanes he used to fly in the Navy, and it just fascinated me. So, from the time I was probably six years old, that's what I've always wanted to do, fly in the military."

When he was finally old enough, Cobb toured the different military academies and eventually decided to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. It was here that an obstacle he dealt with his entire life was now interfering with his boyhood dream. His less-than-perfect eyesight was finally catching up with him.

Cobb went through optical therapy in hopes of giving himself a chance to earn a pilot training spot, but it didn't seem to be enough.

"It was a really emotional road to get there, even up to the point where the academy told me, 'Yeah, you still have some issues going on, we're not going to be able to give you a flying spot,'" he said.

Miraculously, just two weeks before he graduated, Cobb got a waiver approved and received a spot for pilot training school.

But after only six months at PTS, the aspiring pilot encountered yet another devastating hurdle.

"I got air sick all the time, like just constantly," he said. "It led to horrible training and eventually they had to wash me out. I did eventually kind of get over the air sickness, but far too late in the game for me to learn how to fly."

Cobb stayed positive even though he was forced to accept the fact that he would not be a pilot. Instead, the Air Force gave him the opportunity to continue his Air Force career as a navigator.

"For me, this is my way to be an aviator," he said. "This is all that I could do in the Air Force to continue flying, and I'm eternally grateful."

The training to become a navigator lasted nearly a year and covered navigation, weapons systems operations and electronic warfare.

"We are actually very broadly trained and only use a very narrow range of our skillset on the tanker," said Cobb. "The hardest part of training for most people was what we called self-protection. We were essentially steering the plane, jamming threats, evading threats, employing countermeasures, detecting and identifying threats, navigating, keeping track of timing and dropping weapons all at once. It was more than I've ever had to handle in real life."

By graduation, the new navigator was assigned to the KC-135 Stratotanker as part of the special operations aerial refueling mission.

"Captain Cobb is one of our best navigators, and a leader in his career field," said Maj. Aaron Stark, 384th ARS chief of standards and evaluation and Cobb's supervisor. "Every day he sets the standard for others to follow and plays a major role in helping our team accomplish the mission."

Even though he isn't piloting aircraft like he had originally hoped since he was a child, Cobb still recognizes and appreciates the impact his job has on the mission.

"When you do what we do, and you're in a defenseless aircraft flying in pretty risky situations, I don't know any pilot who would say no to having an extra set of eyes on the plane," he said. "I think that's ultimately what we provide. We take some of the workload from them, and they can concentrate on [flying the aircraft]. It allows us to take that extra level of risk necessary, because the stakes are really high when it comes to special operations.

Ultimately, Cobb said his role helps refuel the fight by getting fuel to aircraft that can protect the troops on the ground.

"Those guys are really willing to push the limits, and they need a tanker crew that can do the same, and we provide that flexibility," said Cobb. "We allow our tankers to accept more risk, push a little harder, and make sure that no matter what we can get the aircraft and crews their gas. We push harder so they can push harder; they push harder so the guys on the ground can push harder."