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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: Becoming a boom

  • 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.)

From an early age, Airman 1st Class Shelby Bowling, 350th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator, had an idea of what she wanted to do when she grew up.

"My dad is former Air Force, and I always wanted to be in the military at some point," said Bowling.

It wasn't until midway through her college career that life provided her an opportunity to take a chance.

"I was about halfway done with [my degree] and the school I was attending raised its tuition," said the Fairbanks, Alaska native. " I couldn't put myself into debt, so I took a couple months off."

During her time off, Bowling revisited her childhood dream of joining the military and decided that it was either now or never. Her dad encouraged her to look into flying jobs as either a boom operator or a loadmaster. 

"I knew what I wanted to do immediately," said Bowling. "I told the recruiter that I wanted to be a boom, and I got the job three weeks later."

After basic military training, Bowling stayed at Lackland  Air Force Base, Texas, where she began her year-long journey to become a boom operator in a flight fundamentals course. It was during this time she also found out she would be assigned to the KC-135 Stratotanker.

Bowling received KC-135 specific training on the ins and outs of the aircraft down to the hydraulic and electric systems over the next several months after her flight fundamentals course.

While she wasn't studying in the classroom, Bowling said she was busy in the simulator getting the hang of all the controls and learning how to refuel various aircraft in different conditions. 

After spending numerous hours practicing in the simulator, her instructors felt she was ready to try out her new in-flight refueling skills with real aircraft.

"It's mind-blowing, everything was going super fast," she said. "Now it's easy, and it's like second nature, but that first ride you're just blown away at everything that you have to do. I just remember being overwhelmed."

Since then, the boom operator said she has come to love the entire aspect of aerial refueling and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. The excitement and motivation to do her job well has carried her through multiple deployments and TDYs in support of various contingencies around the world.

"It's the mobility," she said. "[Some aircraft] can't make it even half way across the country without us. You get to drag planes all across the world. Expanding our reach, I think is the most important."

Her work ethic both in the office and on the aircraft doesn't go unnoticed.

"Bowling is a highly motivated, good attitude, hard-working boom operator and Airman," said Senior Airman Josh Garrett, 350th ARS boom operator. "The Air Force needs more Airmen like her."

Although her hard work may not always get her in the spotlight, Bowling said this might actually be the coolest aspect of her job.

"When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I refuel planes in the air, of people don't know that exists," said Bowling. "I think that's the coolest part, doing a job that isn't really known or commonly talked about. It's exciting. There's no other job that I would want to do in the military."