Sky-high fill-ups

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press A U.S. Thunderbird is refueled by a boom from a KC-135 Stratotanker Thursday morning above the state of Nevada. The Fairchild Air Force Base crew aboard the Stratotanker showcased its mid-air mission to the media as the eight Thunderbirds headed from Nellis Air Force Base to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

  • 1

    LOREN BENOIT/PressPictured are fuel quantities within a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mid-air refueling mission for eight U.S. Thunderbird. Each Thunderbird received 3,000 pounds of fuel in under 2 minutes before unhooking.

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    LOREN BENOIT/PressAt around 25,000 feet above Nevada, a U.S. Thunderbird soars in formation next to a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mid-air refueling mission. The eight Thunderbirds are headed from Nellis Air Force Base to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

  • 3

    LOREN BENOIT/PressSun rays flow into the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker as Pilot and Capt. David Leibrand punches in coordinates to rally with a group of eight U.S. Thunderbirds above the state of Nevada. The Thunderbirds are headed to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

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    LOREN BENOIT/Press There are 44 KC-135s based out of Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base and can travel up to 600 mph. They provide aerial refueling support to the Navy, Marines and allied nation aircraft.

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    LOREN BENOIT/PressUnder the belly of a KC-135 Stratotanker, Air Force boom operator Travis Peirce views aircraft from this window. The aircraft refuel 30 feet from the aircraft at the speed of around 356 miles per hour.

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    LOREN BENOIT/PressKC-135 Stratotanker boom operator Travis Peirce goes through his final checklist before refueling a U.S. Thunderbird Thursday morning above Nevada. Peirce uses lights, hand signals and vocal commands to complete the refueling process while the two aircrafts match their speeds of about 356 miles-per-hour.

  • 7

    LOREN BENOIT/PressA U.S. Thunderbird bound for Boise soars above Nevada during a mid-air refueling mission.

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press A U.S. Thunderbird is refueled by a boom from a KC-135 Stratotanker Thursday morning above the state of Nevada. The Fairchild Air Force Base crew aboard the Stratotanker showcased its mid-air mission to the media as the eight Thunderbirds headed from Nellis Air Force Base to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

  • 1

    LOREN BENOIT/PressPictured are fuel quantities within a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mid-air refueling mission for eight U.S. Thunderbird. Each Thunderbird received 3,000 pounds of fuel in under 2 minutes before unhooking.

  • 2

    LOREN BENOIT/PressAt around 25,000 feet above Nevada, a U.S. Thunderbird soars in formation next to a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during a mid-air refueling mission. The eight Thunderbirds are headed from Nellis Air Force Base to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

  • 3

    LOREN BENOIT/PressSun rays flow into the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker as Pilot and Capt. David Leibrand punches in coordinates to rally with a group of eight U.S. Thunderbirds above the state of Nevada. The Thunderbirds are headed to a demonstration in Boise this weekend.

  • 4

    LOREN BENOIT/Press There are 44 KC-135s based out of Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base and can travel up to 600 mph. They provide aerial refueling support to the Navy, Marines and allied nation aircraft.

  • 5

    LOREN BENOIT/PressUnder the belly of a KC-135 Stratotanker, Air Force boom operator Travis Peirce views aircraft from this window. The aircraft refuel 30 feet from the aircraft at the speed of around 356 miles per hour.

  • 6

    LOREN BENOIT/PressKC-135 Stratotanker boom operator Travis Peirce goes through his final checklist before refueling a U.S. Thunderbird Thursday morning above Nevada. Peirce uses lights, hand signals and vocal commands to complete the refueling process while the two aircrafts match their speeds of about 356 miles-per-hour.

  • 7

    LOREN BENOIT/PressA U.S. Thunderbird bound for Boise soars above Nevada during a mid-air refueling mission.

Fairchild's regional impact

The total economic impact of Fairchild Air Force base for fiscal year 2016 was estimated at $432 million. It is home to 44 KC-135 Stratotankers that have provided mid-air fueling for 61 years. The capability enhances the Air Force's mission of global reach. The birds also provide fueling support to the Navy, Marines and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 can also transport supplies and patients during disasters. Fairchild had $84 million in contract expenditures in FY16. The base is comprised of the host 92nd Air Refueling Wing, the 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Washington National Guard, the 336th Training Group, the Armed Forces Reserve Center and 15 other tenant organizations. It encompasses nearly 6,000 Air Force active duty, Air National Guard, Army Guard and Reserve members and civilian employees.

By BRIAN WALKER

Staff Writer

HIGH ABOVE NEVADA — Lying on his belly, head relaxed on a chin rest, boom operator Travis Peirce, from the back of a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker 25,000 feet above Nevada, watched his fuel customer fly up.

The customer, a pilot of the famous Thunderbirds, eased to within about 30 feet of the tanker and 2 feet from the boom, matching the 356 mph speed.

Staff Sgt. Peirce, resembling a video-game player on a huge-screen TV, did the rest with hand-eye coordination of the controls, lowering the boom to the Thunderbird's receiving receptacle.

"You don't understand it until you get to see it," said a smiling Peirce from the boom pod as the Thunderbird received 3,000 pounds of fuel in under 2 minutes before unhooking. "There's not a lot of wiggle room to play around with."

A Fairchild Air Force Base crew showcased its core mid-air mission to the media on Thursday as eight Thunderbirds heading from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to a demonstration in Boise this weekend were fueled up in about 25 minutes.

"A lot goes on in a little time," Peirce said.

When two planes fly so close together, there’s always the risk of an accident, but that's where training and teamwork kick in, Peirce said.

"When the boom connects to the receiver, both aircraft become more stable," he said. "When you start out, it is technical but after you do it a while it becomes second nature."

This mission was shorter than most of the average of five a day from Fairchild. They occur throughout the West and over the Pacific Ocean night and day.

The thrust behind air refueling is to cut flight time, allowing aircraft to move across the world in a day if need be. Further, the more stops airplanes have to make, the greater chance for mechanical or logistical issues.

Generally just three airmen — the pilot, co-pilot and boom operator — are aboard a 136-foot-long KC-135 during air refueling. All three are in radio contact with one another as well as the pilot of the receiver plane during the mission.

"It is rare that members of the community get the opportunity to witness the professionalism of our airmen performing our refueling mission as we showcase our safe execution of the critical part we play in rapid global mobility," said Col. B. Todd Cargle, 92nd Operations Group commander.

When three airmen were asked what they like most about their jobs, they were quick to reply that their roles with Team Fairchild in helping aircraft continue their mission in mid-air puts them on Cloud Nine.

Pilot and Capt. David Leibrand said his job is to fly on as stable of a platform as possible, allowing the pilot fueling below to fly near the boom.

But the view isn't too shabby for the airmen, either.

"You get to see not only our country, but some foreign nations as well," said co-pilot Lt. Adam Less as he looked out over Boise.

Positioned downward on padding in the boom pod and looking out a small window, Peirce can't help but admire nature's beauty, either.

"You get to see some pretty cool sights on this job," he said while looking for the Thunderbirds to fly up from behind. "I love the sunrises and sunsets."

There are 44 KC-135s based out of Fairchild. They can travel up to 600 mph. The cost of the aircraft — based on fiscal 1998 dollars — is $39.6 million each. They also provide aerial refueling support to the Navy, Marines and allied nation aircraft.

In addition to refueling missions, the old but updated birds, built from 1957 to 1964, are used to transport patients and supplies during a crisis.

A new era of refueling missions is waiting in the wings.

Other aircraft, including the KC-46 and KC-10, also have refueling capabilities with newer technology than the KC-135s.

"Technology keeps evolving and changing, and we'll see a KC-46 some day here at Fairchild," said Tom Ireland, chief of operations.

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