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McConnell: home of the 'booms'

Airman 1st Class Kyle Jackson, 344th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator apprentice, goes over a preflight checklist Jan. 15, 2014, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. He is evaluated on his performance by an instructor boom operator. Each passed evaluation brings Jackson closer to becoming a boom operator journeyman. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class John Linzmeier)

Airman 1st Class Kyle Jackson, 344th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator apprentice, goes over a preflight checklist Jan. 15, 2014, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. He is evaluated on his performance by an instructor boom operator. Each passed evaluation brings Jackson closer to becoming a boom operator journeyman. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class John Linzmeier)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- At a distance, their flight suits may make them appear to be pilots, however, their work station isn't in the cockpit; the boom pod is their real home.

The boom operators of McConnell Air Force Base comprise the world's largest single group in their career field. While their main role is to manually in-flight refuel aircraft, their duties entail much more than just that.

"On top of refueling, we act as a safety observer for the flight, which requires us to thoroughly understand specific safety regulations at the top of your head," said Senior Airman Jacob Burton, 344th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator journeyman. "Basically, when we're in flight, everything behind the cockpit is our responsibility."

They are sometimes referred to as "boomigators," a combination of boom and navigator, because their role is immersed with that of a pilot's.

"Pilots and boom operators have skills that overlap in several ways," said Capt. Chase Bradley, 344th ARS pilot. "Boom operators have a deep understanding of the various aircraft systems including engines, hydraulics, pneumatics and electrics. If something goes wrong with a system, booms are there backing up the pilots ensuring that everyone gets home safe."

In addition to aiding pilots, boom operators can also assist in aero-medical evacuation operations.

"Booms assist medical teams in configuring the aircraft with the various pieces of medical equipment as well as loading of the patients," said Bradley. "This may sound easy, but the boom is responsible for knowing where every person and piece of equipment is going and make sure that it's secured to the aircraft properly."

They also help load and unload cargo. The KC-135 Stratotanker, while primarily not a transport aircraft, often has some type of equipment or cargo onboard,

"Securing cargo is a challenging task because if the aircraft is too heavy or our center of gravity is too far forward or aft, we may not be able to takeoff," said Burton.

Their aircrew status requires all booms to complete the Air Force Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training, which teaches them basic survival skills that can be useful in a hostile or desolate environment.

Booms are fit to handle many other small crises that can potentially occur in flight, such as manually adjusting the aircraft's landing gears or wing flaps if they are nonresponsive.

Burton's experience as a boom operator has helped him develop an appreciation for others.

"It's really eye opening to see how hard the maintainers are working out there to prepare the jets," he said. "There's also the fuels portion, fabrications, transportation, the meals prepared; they all do their work so effectively. The mission is all connected together like a huge spider web."

Burton also attributes much of his dedication and professionalism toward the experiences he had when deployed.

"I remember seeing sparks of gunfire through my night vision goggles and realized that our guys needed support ASAP," said Burton. "An AC-130 came up to be refueled. I could hear him breathing heavy on the radio because he's full of adrenaline and about to save whoever's down there. Experiences like that make it a lot more real."

Burton says that the only effective way to be a good boom operator is to really become fluent with the job's manuals and instructions.

"Knowing our publications is key," Barton said. "The more you know the better crew member you're going to be and the more valuable you are when you're on the aircraft."

Burton considers the challenges, even in light of his many responsibilities, to be the most rewarding part of his line of work.

"The job is pretty demanding but it's definitely worth it in the end," he said. "As far as I can tell, it's one of the best enlisted jobs in the Air Force, if not the best."