Sky High: One reporter's crash course in the mission of Fairchild AFB's KC-135

click to enlarge The F-22 seen from the window of one of Fairchild AFB's KC-135. - RILEY UTLEY PHOTO
Riley Utley photo
The F-22 seen from the window of one of Fairchild AFB's KC-135.

As I rolled out of bed Thursday morning at 0500 I can safely say I really did not know what I was getting myself into. I knew I was going on a plane, I knew it was a military plane and I knew we were going to see a fighter jet… that’s it.

Even now I don’t think I can fully comprehend how cool seeing these planes in action was, but what I can say was that it was a once in a lifetime experience and well worth waking up early.

Prior to my interview with the pilot and the plane ride all I knew about military planes and the Air Force was what I had seen in Top Gun and the assortment of random plane information given to me by my 15-year-old brother.


Being able to talk about the planes and procedures with the crew was insightful and it helped me begin to understand the magnitude of the situation I was in.


We flew on a KC-135, one of Fairchild Air Force Base's primary aircraft, on a mission to refuel two F-22 fighter jets, part of the Raptor Demo Team. This means we got in a very large plane and flew to meet the F-22s that were coming from the Nellis Air Force Base, located in the Las Vegas area.


“For SkyFest we are helping the F-22 demo team arrive to the Spokane area,” says Capt. David Leibrand, a KC-135 instructor pilot. “It’s a great way to highlight what we do. The F-22 is one of the newest and most technologically advanced aircraft in the world, but it can’t do its job without fuel.”


On the flight I got to see this refueling happen.

click to enlarge Boom operator Devin Battle, an airman at Fairchild AFB, works as a KC-135 attaches to a Raptor for refueling in mid-air. - RILEY UTLEY PHOTO
Riley Utley photo
Boom operator Devin Battle, an airman at Fairchild AFB, works as a KC-135 attaches to a Raptor for refueling in mid-air.


The plan was to off-load 60,000 pounds, or 360,000 gallons of fuel, Leibrand says.


At about 36,000 feet in the air we waited for the F-22s to arrive. Once they were at the KC-135, the boom operator took his place in the boom bay, which is a small crawlspace-like area at the back of the aircraft and prepared to refuel the jets.


This experience highlighted the importance of the refueling process and the KC-135, and helped shine a light on the lesser known aircraft within the Air Force.


“The neat thing about the KC-135 is that we affect all missions across the Air Force and jointly across our allied partners as well,” Leibrand says. “You may think of refueling fighters, but we also refuel reconnaissance aircraft, bomber aircraft, even other mobility and air electric craft. Not only for the Air Force and Navy but partners like the Australian Air Force.”


This plane is vital to the operation of the Air Force and getting to see what it was capable of was a breathtaking experience.


The flight itself was about four hours. Leibrand says this is pretty typical for their missions but they can go all the way up to 16 hours. These planes and their crews fly primarily over the United States but also around the world to assist whenever and wherever needed.


Once we touched back down, we had the opportunity to talk with the F-22 Raptor Demo Team.

On Saturday at SkyFest they will be showcasing their aircraft in an aerial demonstration as well as allowing people to come look at it when it is stationary.


The F-22s being used at SkyFest are borrowed from Nellis Air Force Base. The Raptor Demo Team use a strategy called “Raptor Nation” where they will borrow these jets from the closest base to the air show where they they are demonstrating.


“Every aircraft you're seeing here today could go to war the next day,” says Tech. Sgt. Joey Aronson, who is the avionics specialist for the F-22 Raptor Demo Team.


Only one pilot qualified to fly the demonstration, Maj. Paul “Loco” Lopez.


“[My name] came from being crazy about life and being crazy about being a fighter pilot. And just loving being a part of the air show family,” Lopez says.


Lopez along with his crew were all so excited to talk about their planes and SkyFest, their enthusiasm was infectious.


“It is very exhilarating,” Lopez says. “The blood is coursing through your veins, the adrenaline is coursing through your body. Your heart is pumping, you get butterflies every time you get the chance to push the throttle over the hump into afterburner.”


“So many people dream about doing this. But to be one of the few that get the opportunity to have this shot I’m very humbled, blessed and privileged,” Lopez says.


Everyone involved with SkyFest, the KC-135 and the F-22s are passionate about their planes and programs and being able to see this firsthand was awe inspiring.


SkyFest is this Saturday and will give people the chance to interact with these incredible pilots and crews. This is an opportunity to learn about the work the Air Force does and see all their skill and talent first-hand.


“It’s hard to get jaded when you have a job as cool as we do," says Aronson.


To learn more about SkyFest and how to attend go to fairchild.af.mil/airshow and to learn more about the air show and the rules and regulations, check out dvidshub.net/unit/92ARW. Gates open at 9 am and the aerial show begins at 11:30 am.

More photos from the flight:

click to enlarge Fairchild's KC-135s will be on display at SkyFest Saturday. - RILEY UTLEY PHOTO
Riley Utley photo
Fairchild's KC-135s will be on display at SkyFest Saturday.


click to enlarge This is the F-22 Raptor that refueled midair. - RILEY UTLEY PHOTO
Riley Utley photo
This is the F-22 Raptor that refueled midair.

click to enlarge The F-22 after some practice dog-fighting. - RILEY UTLEY PHOTO
Riley Utley photo
The F-22 after some practice dog-fighting.

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