Sat 13 Aug 2005
Twenty miles away from the overhead tanker pilot, the squadron XO acquires a radar lock on the USAF tanker orbiting in its track, analyzes the target angle and maneuvers to intercept heading for a stern conversion…
It’s good to be the first one airborne, he thinks again. Although his radar warning receiver occasionally burps at him from six o’clock, adding unnecessary proof that the launch has continued behind him, he knows there should be no traffic between him and the big wing tanker now out of its turn to the south to maintain the tanker orbit, and on one of its long legs back towards the ship.
He’d like forty thousand feet of lateral separation for his stern conversion - a turn radius of three miles and a bit. He could turn in a great deal less room, if he had to, but that would cost him airspeed or fuel or both and the tanker crews get tense when they see fighters turning behind them in a ball of vapor and full afterburner. More separation is better, more controlled. The XO leaves the engines at military power for the climb to the tanker’s altitude - or almost: He’ll stop one thousand feet below before snuggling up once “aboard.”
The tanker is 20 degrees left on his scope. He re-checks his target aspect vector, the measure of angle to his aircraft from the tanker’s nose: 10 left. A little too hot for their 20 miles of separation, 10 left at 20 nm is only 20,000 feet of lateral separation so he turns away, puts the target symbology 40 degrees left on his radar display - that should open the distance. By fifteen miles he’s got better than 15 degrees of target aspect, almost 20 - an easy turn to reciprocal bearing will let it continue to build. There - forty degrees at ten miles: Perfect.
Outside the cockpit, the big wing tanker looms large in the distance. The Navy has nothing like this strategic tanker capability, all its tankers are carried aboard the aircraft carriers and thus constrained in size by the carrier’s deck. In a normal cyclic launch and recovery, an FA-18E can offload maybe 8,000 pounds of gas to the guy who’s having a rough time getting aboard the carrier. The massive KC-135 up there, a variant of the Boeing 707 airliner, can offload over 100,000 pounds of gas - easily enough to extend the endurance of the close air support mission the XO is leading by another cycle, thereby maximizing persistent combat power and utility to the boys on the ground. The USAF needs these strategic tankers to support their “global reach” vision and have suffered, albeit grudgingly at times, the Navy have to a sip as well.
At five miles the XO is at his target altitude and it’s time to heat the intercept up: In a left turn at no more than 30 degrees angle of bank he pulls the KC-135 to the nose - pure pursuit. Because of the relative geometry, increasing angle of bank is required to heat this up a bit more - the classic stern conversion is designed to bring the fighter 9000 feet in trail of his target, but the XO wants to be just off his wing, The huge jet looms in his HUD, and then floats out of his HUD above his canopy as he rolls out in perfect position, 1000 feet below the tanker. He allows himself a mental smile - it’s a simple thing really, but the XO is convinced that success in almost anything comes from doing a sometimes complicated series of simple things well.
Stabilized, he bumps the throttles up again to climb the 1000 feet into “port observation.” The radar is “silenced” by a pushtile on the display as the XO confirms the aircraft armament system to be safe. The XO completes his tanking checklist with a call on the boom frequency: “Hobo 402, port observation, nose cold, switches safe.”
Strung out in a line behind him, roughly in the sequence they were shot from the deck, a line of heavily laden strike fighters stretches back towards the carrier like a group of ducklings trailing leaving the water to waddle up to their waiting mother. In each cockpit, a pilot works his way through post-takeoff checklists, combat checklists and pre-tanking checklists. Radars sweep above and below, and their heads scan to fill the gaps in close, looking for traffic - the airspace around the carrier is uncontrolled - see and be seen is the order of the day, if you want to live.
Overhead the carrier, the FA-18E tanker pilot finishes his letter home, stuffs it into his g-suit pocket and looks around outside for traffic, automatically. He reverts to the world as it is, with home and love placed away inside a box within his head, a box he’ll open only when their is the time for it. With this brusque exercise in compartmentalization, as critical a skill to success in the air as are perfect eyesight and keen reflexes, the slender tendril of synchronicity with his wife back at home is snapped. Half the world away, she hears the children stirring in their bedrooms. She sighs, stands up and goes to the kitchen sink, runs the water, dabs at her face with a cool washcloth. She raises her chin in a kind of defiance, squares her shoulders and sets her face against the day. It’s only three more months. Half way there.
Aboard the carrier, in the dirty shirt wardroom well forward on the O-3 level, the lieutenant junior grade pushes his unappetizing meal around his plate with his fork. Pork something in a brown sauce and rice. Again. He places his fork down for a moment and puts his hand up to his right eye - tries to stop the nervous ticking there, smooth it all away. Looks back down at his plate in disgust. Hell, even if his stomach wasn’t all roiled from thinking about the fiasco last night, himself going around and around and finally trapping at the last on the one wire, in afterburner with the LSO screams of “POWER, POWER” still ringing in his ears, and the Air Boss calling, “Lights on deck, 311, lights on deck and throttle back, we’ve got you,” even without that weighing on his mind the meal would not be very appealing. As things are though, it’s inedible. Ah, well. There’s always the good old, reliable PB&J. At times he feels like he lives on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
In the tanker orbit, the XO makes a small wing dip, a minute adjustment aft of the throttles and changes focus from the tanker’s port wingtip to the boom itself. The USAF uses a boom and receptacle arrangement for tanking its own bombers and fighters - the receiver aircraft simply flies formation on the big jet, while the boom operator in the back steers the tanker probe into the customer’s refueling receptacle. The Navy, being the Navy of course, does this the exact opposite way: The boom is locked and a drogue assembly streamed. Into this combination the fighter pilot flies his refueling probe.
On the even larger KC-10, the USAF has kindly adapted a refueling package with a long, soft hose, a velvety soft drogue and flexible take-up reel to accommodate the Navy’s requirements - it is probably true that the same men who as children had visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads come Christmas time, now dream of tapping into KC-10’s to get their fill of go-juice some 20 years on. Everyone’s face lights up at the news of a KC-10 in the air.
Not so with the KC-135. For their own inscrutable reasons, the USAF decided to adapt the -135 probe with a short length of reinforced rubber tubing attached to steel-lined, hard plastic refueling basket. Once the fighter pilot gets his refueling probe into the basket, he has to continue to press forward in order to make a kink in the hard hose - no kink, no fuel flow. The basket, hose and kink resists: The feeling is that the tanker is perversely trying to push the fighter back out of the basket. Any misalignment as they connect or disconnect can cause the heavy refueling basket to come smashing into the fighter’s fuselage. When this happens, it will probably take the fighter’s refueling probe tip with it (no more gas for you!) and potentially knock off one of the cheek-mounted angle of attack measuring vanes. These vanes have to go down into the engines, there to cause no end of damage, chugs, compressor stalls, no choice really, not to mention throwing the flight control computers into a state of kernel panic. That is, of course, if the basket doesn’t come crashing through the plexiglas canopy itself, turning the fighter into a convertible and leaving the cockpit a shrieking maelstrom of noise, windblast and confusion. For this reason, while the KC-10 takes pride of place in the fighter pilot pantheon of pleasures, the -135 is known throughout the fleet simply as the “Iron Maiden.”
“Pre-contact,” the XO calls when he’s aligned behind the basket.
“Cleared to engage.”
The XO bumps the throttles up, cautiously - the key is to keep flying formation on the big jet, while steering the probe right into the center of the basket. The key is to have confidence, to know that you can do this, that it can be done. The key is not to be afraid…