Thunderous roars pierced the calm morning air as six colossal KC-135 Stratotankers surged into the sky in an authoritative unison, painting a spectacle against the canvas of Tuesday's dawn. As their wings sliced through the atmosphere, the deafening symphony of power and precision echoed, leaving spectators spellbound by this display of human ingenuity and military might.
A handful of people beheld this captivating glimpse into the world of military aviation on June 27, as jets broke free of gravity’s grip in intervals under 15 seconds at Fairchild Air Force Base.
“They shake you to your core when you’re that close to them,” says Tanner Andrews, a recent Air Force recruit who watched the event.
Following the mornings’ takeoffs, the Stratotankers embarked on flyovers above communities across the Northwest to mark 100 years of aerial refueling.
Demonstrations of the intricate aerial choreography of transferring fuel were seen in the skies above Seattle’s Space Needle, Mount Rushmore, Glacier National Park, and Spokane’s own Riverfront Park.
“It’s really incredible for the American public to get to see this,” says Capt. Teri Bunce, Fairchild chief of public affairs. “Those are two big jets that are touching midair and flying alongside each other.”
Usually, this process occurs at 10,000 feet altitude but for this occasion, the Air Force obtained clearance to conduct the demonstrations at 1,000 and 2,000 feet to allow for those to witness the spectacle from ground level.
The first aerial refueling was accomplished on June 27, 1923 when gasoline was passed through a hose between DH-4B’s — two-seat biplanes of the first World War. Today, the process is performed using a metallic appendage, called a boom, Bunce says.
“Those were leaps and bounds of technological development that, ultimately, enabled us to go around the world in a matter of hours,” says Lt. Col. David Clark, commander of the 384th Air Refueling Squadron. “To think initially, it was literally a garden hose and some gas tanks is truly phenomenal.”
With meticulous precision, skilled boom operators on a tanker jet guide the rigid tube towards the receiver aircraft. As the connection is established, the boom delicately probes the awaiting receptacle, uniting the two aircraft in a celestial embrace. A flow of fuel ensues, empowering the receiver to make global reach a reality.
The critical process serves as a force multiplier, increasing the speed, range, lethality, flexibility and versatility of combat aircraft, says Bunce. “It’s the backbone of the Department of Defense’s most vital missions.”
Additionally, air refueling crucially enhances the survivability of military forces.
“It's easier to not be detected by the enemy when staying in the air than to land. So if we can refuel air to air, it keeps our forces safer,” Bunce says.
The 92nd Air Refueling Wing located at Fairchild is the Air Force’s largest active duty air refueling wing, warranting the title “Super Tanker Wing,” according to Bunce.
“We have more tanker aircraft on our flightline in Fairchild than other nations have in their entire air force,” Bunce says.
The refueling wing has global reach, orchestrating missions that span the earth.
“Not a single aircraft can get where it needs to be without fuel,” Bunce said. “No one kicks ass without tanker gas.” ♦