Fuel into the danger zone

Hill Air Force Base’s F-16 Fighting Falcons command a lot of attention. But even the most grandiose of jets get a little dependent when it comes to its missions – whether combat or practice – and that is
where U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircrafts come into play.

UVU Review was invited to a media flight on the KC-135 Stratotanker, an opportunity to fly over the vast Utah Test and Training Range and witness a refueling mission.

Briefings were given regarding 75th Air Base Wing, 388th Fighter Wing and the Utah Air National Guard missions. Acronyms and statistics illustrated the magnitude of the missions going on at the air force base. It was quite the introduction as we prepared to enter the Stratotanker.

The trip began in Salt Lake City at the National Guard Air Base as the KC-135 flew near the Utah-Nevada border to a northern corner of the Utah Test and Training Range(UTTR). To give a sense of the atmosphere, imagine the guts of an aircraft stripped out. The arching roof was covered by a sort of insulation that resembled sleeping bags more than anything else, draped throughout the entirety of the aircraft. Instead of forward facing seats, reclining with drop-down tables and in-flight magazines, the seats are lining the sides, leaving little room for comfort. In minimalistic fashion, the seats aren’t a far-cry from vinyl camping chairs. Enough comfort for a two-hour flight, but one has to wonder — and respect — how many military members line these same chairs in much-longer, more intense missions.

As we approached our ceiling of 21,000 feet, we were free to walk around the aircraft. Cords draped in-and-out throughout the aircraft, a sort of capillary system connecting who-knows-whats to who-knows-wheres. Well, the crew knows, and were constantly attentive to the inner-workings of the aircraft, from toggling switches, to keeping a written record of all the logistics of the mission.

The KC-135 approached 500 miles per hour at times, including nearly 400 miles per hour while refueling the five F-16s. We flew over the aforementioned UTTR, which is one of the most preferred military training facilities in the world and stands as the largest overland block of supersonic airspace (a footprint of 2,675 square miles of ground space and more than 19,000 square miles of airspace) in the entire continental United States.

To refuel, Tech. Sgt. Derek Larson of the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing would lay on his stomach, looking out a plexi-glass window peering 21,000 feet down through the bottom of the KC-135. He would then use what looks like a fancier computer joystick to bring the fueling apparatus flush with the fuel intake on each F-16. The process would take no longer than a minute per F-16, then they would retreat to their missions. Luckily the refueling missions, which have taken place in both Iraq and Afghanistan, offer the flyers little danger, with no air force opposing them.

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