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ABOARD A KC-135 STRATOTANKER — The morning sun had yet to take its first peek at the new day. A nighttime star-studded sky still covered most of the Mediterranean Sea.

But the ribbon of orange stretching left and right across the horizon before the nose of the airplane flying a few miles above the lazy water moved Capt. Mike Pontiff to say, “It’s mornings like this that make you wonder why they pay us.”

Nevertheless, Pontiff, 26, earned his keep Saturday. He was co-pilot on a KC-135 Stratotanker, one of six that lifted off well before dawn from an air base in the Mediterranean region to quench the thirst of Navy jets from the carriers Harry S. Truman and Theodore Roosevelt.

The 100th Air Refueling Wing from RAF Mildenhall, England, has deployed to this location to support the war on terror and to be in place for any future operations that just might — like the sun — come slipping over the horizon.

Because of political sensitivities in the host nation, the location of the base can not be revealed.

The tankers from the 351st Air Refueling Squadron, part of the 100th, launched in two groups of three Saturday. Pontiff was aboard the sixth and final aircraft, which was commanded and piloted by Capt. Roberto Arciniega, 28. Senior Airman Dustin Clark, who turned 23 on Sunday, was the boom operator.

Capt. Kelly Martin, 32, an instructor pilot with the squadron, was on board to look after three passengers, but happy for an excuse to fly.

A pilot for nine years, she is an enthusiastic supporter of the tanker and its mission and can talk about the KC-135 the way Homer Simpson can discuss donuts.

“We can offload enough in one minute for you to drive your car for one year,” she said. Fully loaded, the tanker’s 200,000 pounds of fuel would power a car for 40 years.

An F-16 might take 7,000 pounds, but the larger F-15 can handle twice as much. A C-17 transport can swallow a 70,000-pound load.

Minutes after the first trio of aircraft launched Saturday, the second trio did the same, with 30 second-intervals between them.

Soon after taking off, one aircraft in the final group reported a problem. The landing gear would not retract. The problem was broadcast across the radio as the crew informed the control folks back at the base.

“Down gear is happy gear,” said Pontiff. “That’s what they teach you in pilot training.”

He meant, better to have the gear stuck in the down position than the up position.

The crew members on the troubled aircraft tried everything and asked for suggestions.

“They’ll just go home,” said Arciniega, looking ahead into the night at the bright light that represented his colleagues.

Martin said a tanker cannot refuel with its landing gear down because of the turbulence it can cause.

“It would have to be an emergency situation,” she said, meaning a “no kidding, I’m going to crash” ordeal.

A few minutes later, about 40 minutes after launch, the aircraft with the problem announced its plan to “adjust gross weight and depart the formation,” according to a voice on the radio, which meant it would dump its fuel and return home.

As the sun made its presence known, it was, indeed, a day that would make an aviator nearly forfeit his pay. The few clouds that marred the sky were of the fluffy, non-threatening variety. The sea and sky were both blue.

Into this beautiful arena came the Navy jets, mostly FA-18 Hornets from the Roosevelt and the Truman, which are steaming in the Med also in support of the war on terrorism and any future operations.

“Refueling the Navy is different for us,” said Arciniega. “We hardly ever see the Navy.”

Unbeknownst to the crew on this aircraft, another KC-135 in the first trio had to turn back. It began spewing fuel as it tried to top off its first Navy customer of the day.

Refueling the Navy jets requires a slight change in tactics. Instead of using the boom in the back, which the boom operator guides to the receiver’s receptacle, a MPRS is released from the wingtip. The MPRS — multiple point refueling system — unwinds into the wind and the Navy jets approach and stab it with a probe to begin receiving fuel.

“It’s boring,” said Clark. “All you do is look in a mirror and look in a panel.”

He looks in a mirror because from his perch in the back of the aircraft, he can’t make direct eye contact with the aircraft at each side. The panel tells him how much fuel the customer is receiving.

With the boom in his hands, he said, “you feel like you’re doing something.”

Ten aircraft eventually gulp the fuel Clark dispenses. They sidled up to the tanker and awaited their turns like patient children.

When it was each jet’s time, it slipped back to the MPRS with the ease of figure skaters sliding across smooth ice.

Midmorning approached as the tanker finished its mission and headed back to its temporary home, the last to land of the six that launched several hours earlier.

On the way back, Pontiff examined the world around him — the whitecaps on the sea, the yellow sun, the cliffs of a nearby island.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he said.

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