FIVE MILES ABOVE EASTERN NEBRASKA — Air Force Maj. Ben Louden leaned back in his seat, both hands lightly on the W-shaped control yoke of the KC-135 Stratotanker under his command.
More than an hour had passed since the air tanker took off from Scott Air Force Base, in southwestern Illinois, on a clear March morning.
After flying northwest across the mud-brown plains of Missouri and Kansas, the Stratotanker, a 56-year-old flying gas station with the picture of Bugs Bunny and the words "Fill 'Er Up, Doc" painted on its nose, had nearly reached the rendezvous point.
Louden looked at Capt. Spencer Liedl, his co-pilot, and then prepared the plane for autopilot.
Meanwhile, at the tail end of the aircraft, Staff Sgt. Jamie Almquist lay flat on his belly, his chin planted on a cushioned chin rest, hands gripping the controls of the plane boom assembly while he gazed through a small window.
With a few minutes to kill, Almquist practiced moving the assembly, which mates the fuel line to the intake of client aircraft. Up and down, side to side, the boom moved in anticipation of the work ahead.
Earlier in the morning, during the mission briefing at the 126th National Guard Air Refueling Wing headquarters, Louden explained the importance of air tanker boom operators like Almquist.
"I say we always drive them to work," said Louden, who has taken a year's leave from his regular job as a Belleville police officer to fly fulltime for the unit.
"Because when we get them to the air refueling destination," he said, "I leave it to them."
Almquist kept his eyes locked on the window. Before him, stretching into infinity, were clouds as wispy as candy floss. The outlines of farm fields and roads criss-crossed a landscape as flat as a dinner plate 27,000 feet below.
A grin suddenly creased Almquist's face as he pointed to a corner of the window.
"I don't know if you can see him," he said. "He's just out there at four o'clock."
A dot materialized on the horizon, then quickly expanded into the hulking form of a B-52 bomber from Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
With a call sign of "Chill 1-2," the bomber floated upward toward the boom, bobbing gently like a toy in a child's bath.
Then the B-52 seemed to stop and hover at a point just 50 feet below and behind the KC-135. At that moment both aircraft, as in synch as mating dragonflies, flew at nearly 470 miles per hour.
Almquist guided the boom's trembling fuel line into the B-52's exposed receptacle. The coupling lasted only a few minutes as 1,000 pounds of jet fuel gushed into the B-52 as part of the day's training mission.
Almquist decoupled the boom and the B-52 floated downward, then paused.
For the next 45 minutes or so, as part of the training mission, the coupling and uncoupling between the planes continued. The B-52 flew so close to the Stratotanker that the unit insignia of the pilot and co-pilot were easy to read.
Almquist's face was a mask of rapt concentration as his fingers delicately feathered the boom controls.
He's been doing this job for a decade, but it never gets old. Part of the reason is the camaraderie he feels with the pilot and co-pilot, Almquist said.
"My job is to back those guys up, just like they back me up," he said. "I could never get complacent, because complacency kills."
As metro-east community leaders seek to bring the new KC-46A Pegasus air tanker to Scott Air Force Base, the nine KC-135s stationed there continue to play a vital support role in American force projection at home and abroad.
No one disputes the idea the nearly 400 KC-135 air tankers in the Air Force inventory need to be replaced. The planes, which have flown on average for more than 50 years apiece, require ever more costly and time-consuming maintenance and repairs to remain airborne.
The air tanker Louden was commanding during the B-52 rendezvous was built in 1958, when TV shows such as "I Love Lucy" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" ruled America's airwaves. The newest KC-135 at Scott rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1964.
Despite their age, the Air Force's Stratotankers continue to play a critical role in America's military planning, according to Michael Kennedy, a military analyst for the RAND Corp., of Santa Monica, Calif.
With a fuel capacity of more than 200,000 pounds -- the equivalent of 17 adult male elephants -- the KC-135 enabled the United States to be the only nation to project airpower on a truly global basis.
The KC-135 and the newer KC-10 air tanker "enable the Air Force to deploy overseas, and in particular to get fighter aircraft overseas in a timely fashion because they don't carry enough fuel to fly non-stop to Europe or Asia," Kennedy said.
America's air refueling prowess means American war planes in Afghanistan can be refueled soon after take-off, fly a mission over hostile territory, then be refueled again to enable them to return safely home.
The KC-135s also play a huge role in homeland security, especially during times of high alert. Because of the air tankers, Air Force combat patrols can fly continuously "over various parts of the country to make sure no attack comes," Kennedy said.
But today the Air Force can't afford to delay much longer in switching to the bigger and faster KC-46A air tanker, he said.
After more than five decades, the KC-135 is as old as any fleet in aviation history. And while the planes have proven remarkably reliable, "there is uncertainty about how much longer they can last," Kennedy said. "There is urgency to get them replaced now before they are incapable of safely flying."
These concerns were underscored only a few days ago, when the Air Force released its report on the factors that caused the crash of a KC-135 Stratotanker in May 2013 in the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, killing three airmen.
The report found that the Stratotanker, which was based at McConnell Air Force Base, near Wichita, Kan., had crashed in large part because of a worn rudder that caused the plane to yaw violently left to right, breaking off the tail section. The plane hurtled to the ground before exploding in midair, according to the investigation report.
The KC-135's advanced age has led to steadily rising costs for operations and maintenance.
In 2003, the Air Force spent $2.2 billion on maintenance for the plane, including depot-level inspections and overhauls during which the planes were taken apart and inspected on a virtual bolt-by-bolt basis.
By 2013, the cost for annual maintenance had ballooned to $3.9 billion, Air Force figures show.
The Air Force plans to phase in 179 new KC-46As, at a cost of $250 million apiece, between 2016 and 2028. In the meantime, the KC-135 will continue its central role in ensuring America maintains its global air dominance.
Indeed, Col. Pete Nezamis, the 126th ARW commander, has said his unit's KC-135s could, if necessary, keep flying effectively for another 30 years -- or longer.
That's a good thing, too, according to RAND Corp.'s Kennedy.
If for some reason America's KC-135 fleet were to be grounded, "it would no doubt embolden potential foes if they saw that the range with which we could operate our aircraft was reduced because of the lack of aerial refueling," he said. "It would make the world a more dangerous place. No one we would want to live in that world."
For his part, Louden looks forward to flying the KC-46A, if and when it makes its way to Scott.
"As pilots we want to fly the newest thing out there," said Louden, citing the aircraft's many high-tech features. "I'd love to fly the KC-46."
At the same type, despite the KC-135's age, Louden professed his love of the plane and the history behind it.
"It's an amazing jet," he said. "It was made in the prestige era of the Jet Age. ... It's very aerodynamic."
A relic of the Cold War, the KC-135 is equipped with flight controls from that era, including steel pulleys and cables, while lacking many of the electronic marvels of a 21st Century aircraft.
Flying the KC-135 requires a lot from pilots: Only a few feet separate the bottom of the plane's wing engines from the ground, which can make safe landings a particular test of pilot skills.
But it's a challenge Louden said he enjoys.
"When I'm flying it, I feel like I'm really flying an aircraft," he said. "There's a lot of handling in the KC-135."
However much longer it has left at Scott, Louden said he looks forward to flying the KC-135.
"The Air Force can't afford to retire it," he said. "That's why our job is so important -- it allows our fighter planes to stay airborne longer and support those troops in the field."