We Describe the Splendor of Flying a Refueling Mission Over the Eastern U.S.
I’d seen the YouTube videos, hundreds of them probably, maybe a thousand if there are that many. But this was nothing like the videos.
On a lofty sheet of silence, like a UFO, it slid in from our left, our aircraft’s right as we faced rearward in the tanker bay. Only forty feet or so from me, 350 MPH, 22,000 feet above the earth. It was huge. And perfect.
My first memory as a child was of an airshow. The Thunderbirds. F-4 Phantoms. They were big and loud and smoky. The men wore crew cuts and precise fitting flight suits. They were just like the Apollo astronauts on black and white TV that Walter Cronkite talked about. One bent down and shook my hand, “You gonna be a pilot?” That was it for me.
I try to concentrate now, but it is difficult. This is my job. Camera set up to aperture priority, image stabilizer on, autofocus set correctly, aperture priority mode. ASA set to 500, shutter jumping around 1/1000th, f 5.6 to f 8. Hold the camera steady. Remember to compose- rule of thirds- watch the tail, don’t cut the tail off and ruin the shot. You can recompose in Photoshop, go a little wider on the zoom. Hold the camera steady, steady… Click, click, click, click, click…
I had done research for this shoot. A man named Stewart Jack, whom I’ve never met in person but friended on Facebook, sent me a solid tip on which lens to use for this shoot. Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM Lens. He responded to a post I threw up on the Aviation Photographers closed group page on Facebook. I mounted the lens on my EOS 7D MkII. Stewart’s recommendation was spot on. Composing shots was easy.
My first 60 photos were bad. I had a polarizer on and the window of the tanker bay in our KC-10 somehow produced a weird rainbow coloration that ruined the shots. I admit to panicking just a bit as I spun the filter off the front of the lens praying the plane in front of me would stay right where it was.
I heard the pilot through my headset make terse reports to the boom operator. He replied, “Thirty feet. Twenty…” The boom operator tucked the refueling boom over just slightly to let the plane’s canopy slide under us. He held two joy sticks to fly the boom. I had to be careful sitting next to him, his right hand was about a foot from my left arm, and there was a $100 million jet right below us, 30-40 feet away.
I am not a pilot. I can fly a plane, learned how once. Flew a Cessna, that doesn’t make me a pilot. Not like this. Like nothing else on earth, I love this. I understand the physics, the aerodynamics, the math, but even with that left-brain understanding of what I see in front of me now, my right-brain knows that this is magic, every Star Wars movie come real, science fiction in reality. Magic.
Before we took off I met the pilots of these two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters. They looked like fine lads, clean cut, one rather quiet, the other well spoken. He had the rank. They wore patches- I collect patches- one said “466FS – SNAKES! IN THE HOUSE”. I want one of those. Their name tags had their callsigns. “Worm” and “Quatro”. They won’t tell us how they got their call signs. Afraid we’ll write about it.
They answered our questions, tough questions about what makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter so expensive. Taxpayers want to know. Their answers are good, and in less than a week several million people have read them across several media outlets.
But that is business.
It’s true I went to school for journalism. I’ve been to war zones, shadowed a hostage rescue team on a training mission. A week ago, I was diving in a school of sharks in the Exuma Islands, but this is beyond anything and it is a little hard to stay… journalistic. It is simply too amazing.
Another aircraft coming in. “He is out there. Was at about thirty miles. Closing now. Be here in a minute. Not sure where he is.” The boom operator tells me. An F-15C Eagle, a predecessor to the F-35A we have in front of us now, is on his way to our tanker for gas. Another incredible photo op. About 60 seconds, we think, before he arrives.
For just a moment I need to take a deep breath, set my camera in my lap. Take this all in. Tidy up my gear. I wear pants made for me by a company called RailRiders. They have special two-way pockets so a photographer can put filters in and out easily while seated. They put my picture in their catalog, and I know the founder, so I am loyal to them. And the pants are actually pretty darn good. I tuck my polarizer into the right cargo pocket through the special zipper. The left pocket holds what I need to keep dust off my lens.
In front of me the F-35A hovers at 350 MPH. The pilot looks nothing like either of the guys we met an hour ago. Head covered in checkered carbon fiber, life vest over his shoulders, seat harness. He does not wave, but I wish he would. His left hand holds the throttle, his right the control stick. Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader. The plane is rock steady plugged into the boom.
They each plug into the boom, then loiter behind us briefly for more photos.
And way too soon, it is over. I’m seated up front in the tanker now as we fly out over the Atlantic to take fuel ourselves from another tanker. But before we reach the refueling track in the air over the Atlantic I toggle through a few of my photos looking at the back of my camera. It worked. I got good shots. Thank God.
And this is one story that, no matter how many tanker flights and media flights I do, I will never forget.