Commentary: ‘Fueling the Future’ at annual boom symposium

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kayla Christenson
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

I am Master Sgt. Brendan Balko, 97th Operations Group KC-135 Stratotanker chief evaluator boom operator. Ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to fly. My family has a history of service, both in and out of the military.

My great uncle was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot for the Army Air Corps in World War II and an F-86 Sabre pilot for the U.S. Air Force in Korea. One of my grandfathers was a radar operator in an F-89 Scorpion. On the civilian side, my other grandfather and his son were both pastors, serving their community. I felt compelled to do the same.

In November of 2006, I joined the Air Force with a training slot at Altus AFB to be a boom operator. I graduated technical training in August of 2007, and have now been flying in the KC-135 for nearly 16 years.

I recently had the opportunity to represent Altus AFB and the 54th Air Refueling Squadron at the Annual Boom Operator Symposium at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, June 9-10, 2023. The theme this year was “Fueling the Future.” The symposium is usually hosted at Altus AFB, the schoolhouse for both the KC-135 and the KC-46 Pegasus.

Typically, the boom symposium has a day of professional development on a Friday, with a memorial service remembering those who have fallen in the line of duty across all tanker aircraft, and retreat late that afternoon, followed by an ice breaker. The next day the booms will typically do a golf tournament with proceeds going to the Altus Boom Operator Association. They also often open a simulator to help build understanding of other boom’s perspectives and if possible, a static aircraft display.

This year’s speaker was Chief Master Sgt. James Fitch, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center command chief. He spoke in generalities about his time as an active flier and interfacing his experiences with the technology being developed for aircrews. At the end of the night the Albert L. Evans award for Best Boom Operator Section of the Year was presented to the 909th ARS from Kadena Air Base, Japan.

As the U.S. air refueling community, we have more than 100 years of experience providing the bulk of the military’s air refueling capabilities, which deliver unrivaled rapid global reach for the Joint Force, and our allies.

Without tankers, the U.S. and our allies cannot win. We cannot move people and materiel quickly without the use of tankers. Air refueling is crucial to extending the range and time aircraft can stay in flight, increasing response, lethality, flexibility, and versatility of combat aircraft. Because of the unique nature of our career field, we collectively get together annually to discuss topics that are relevant to ourselves.

My favorite thing from this year’s symposium was that we were able to celebrate the crews of the three modern tanker aircraft for the last time since the KC-10 Extender is being retired by the end of the year. The good news is that many of the crew members are coming over to be KC-46 Pegasus crew members, so they are still within the community and bringing their years of experience with them.

After the professional development, we got to mingle with boom operators across the fleet and force. It is always great to talk with other people, regardless of what aircraft they fly in or their duty status. Between the career field impacting briefs, the memorial, and social functions, every year the boom symposium is a worth-while event, and I was glad to be a part of it.