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KC-135 - US military's aging workhorse - still dancing in the sky

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — An hour and a half into the training flight, high over eastern Kansas, it was time for Staff Sgt. Jameson Liggett to make his move. He got up from the cockpit, marched 30 paces to the back of the hulking airplane and lay down on the job.

For a moment, all stretched out prone near a small window, he looked like he was praying. But his head was propped up by an enforced chin rest. His hands were folded together to keep warm, near a panel of old gauges and a control stick.

“Can you kick up the heat back here?” Liggett, 28, asked through the radio, settling into his work station as a boom operator on a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.

Built in 1958, the flying gas station was as old as the Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo.” For decades, the U.S. military has relied on a fleet of aging KC-135s to keep military planes in the air for long distances or extended periods of time. Fully loaded, the gray 4-engine jets weigh more than 323,000 pounds, more than 160 tons, and can hold some 32,000 gallons of fuel, enough to top off 1,900 Toyota Camrys.

This one, assigned to the 126th Air Refueling Wing, an Illinois Air National Guard unit out of Scott Air Force Base in the Metro East area, had a painting of Bugs Bunny near the front that read: “Fill ’er up Doc.”

Its three-person crew had a date with two B-2 Stealth Bombers at 28,500 feet.

Liggett was in charge of flying the metal boom that guides a fuel line to a receptacle on approaching aircraft.

He manned guide lights on the belly of the KC-135 to tell pilots which way to nudge their plane so the contact went just right.

Most importantly, though, he made sure nobody got too close. Just a tap between planes could be dooming. They travel nearly 500 mph during aerial refueling.

Old workhorses

The U.S. military has a fleet of more than 400 KC-135s scattered around the globe, all made in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Most of them are overseen by the Air Force’s moving company, officially known as Air Mobility Command. It is headquartered at Scott Air Force Base.

Just eight of the aircraft are assigned there as part of the 126th. Two of the 126th tankers are currently serving around Afghanistan, another in support of a classified homeland security mission. The remaining five are being used for training.

The Boeing KC-46A is supposed to be the next generation of aerial refueling tanker. There are plans to build 179 of them for $30 billion. As each one is expected to come online between 2016 and 2028, a KC-135 is supposed to be taken out of service.

“That’s not nearly enough tankers to continue to support all of our needs, so until we can buy additional KC-46As, the Air Force continues to plan on flying the KC-135,” said Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.

Earlier this earlier year, Scott was not selected as a candidate to become a main operating base for the new aircraft.

Col. Pete Nezamis, commander of the 126th, which is supported by 1,000 service members, doesn’t foresee many changes.

Though the military must cut $487 billion in spending from its budget by 2021, including at least $54 billion from the Air Force alone, Nezamis said he’s not aware of any “massive cuts” that would affect his Air National Guard unit at Scott.

“With what it going on overseas, we will see reductions in our participation,” he said of the troop draw down in Afghanistan. “At the same time, we will be expected to keep our readiness at high standards.”

The KC-135s are old, but they haven’t been flown much. Liggett’s plane only had 21,000 hours of flight time. Every five years the planes are gutted from nose to tail for a complete inspection. Modified parts have been added along the way.

Nezamis expects the KC-135 to be used for the next 30 years.

“This airplane is the workhorse of air refueling,” he said.

Close and personal

During the recent training mission, Liggett first saw the approaching B-2s as they flew in formation high above the cloud line. The planes looked like black boomerangs, only much more deadly.

Liggett was about to get an up-close-and-personal look at the $2.2 billion aircraft that can be fitted with guided munitions and nuclear bombs.

One time during an aerial refueling mission, he was close enough to recognize a friend from O’Fallon High School in the navigation seat of a fighter jet.

Similar to boats in water, planes disturb the air. The KC-135 puts out a wake as it plows ahead at constant speed. Planes approaching from behind for fuel push an air bubble onto the tanker’s tail. The bigger the plane, the bigger the bubble.

If needed, Liggett can trigger an emergency disconnect or breakaway if the fuel line gets stuck, which he’s done a couple times in his five-year career as a boom operator.

Though it was bumpy when the first B-2 approached, Liggett was pleased. The bomber pilot came in nice and slow. Nothing erratic.

He called off the distance until it was closed: 25 feet … 10 feet … 5 feet … in. The fuel line attached perfectly to the receptacle mounted several feet behind the B-2 cockpit.

Looking through the window, Liggett could easily read the “No Step” and “Warning Hot” signs on top of the plane below him.

“How are you doing?” he asked the B-2 pilot via radio.

“Good, thanks,” the pilot said.

Liggett made four connections with the B-2 Stealth Bombers, which were part of the 509th Bomber Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo.

Each connection lasted about 10 minutes. They transferred a small amount of fuel just for practice.

One of the pilots on the receiving end was Air Force Capt. Andrew Kousgaard, 29, of Omaha, Neb., the apparent owner of a bright red Nebraska Cornhuskers lunch bag that was easily in view on the side of the B-2 dashboard.

Kousgaard said by radio that aerial refueling is the toughest part of flying the B-2.

“Something about being this close to another six-digit gross-weight airplane,” he said before drifting away.

As Liggett explains: “It’s kind of like a dance in the sky.”

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