Boom operators indispensible to refueling mission

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan D. Tamblyn
  • Commander, 54th Air Refueling Squadron
It is safe to say there would be no global power, global reach or global vigilance without boom air refueling. Without boom operators there would be no United States boom air refueling at all. Boom operators are essential to extending loiter time of intelligence, surveillance or reconnaissance aircraft and stretching the range of heavily loaded mobility aircraft. Boom operators enable bombers to strike our enemies from across the globe and keep our fighters in the fight long enough to provide unbroken air supremacy. When foreign nations won't allow nearby basing rights to friendly forces, the air refueling provided by boom operators makes us a viable force launched from other bases far away.

Boom operators, affectionately dubbed "booms" or "boomers" are the enlisted Airmen who use radios and lights to direct receiver and tanker pilots through a complex airborne procedure at speeds regularly exceeding 400 miles per hour. In this air refueling procedure, two airborne aircraft actually connect together. The final stages of that daring connection is controlled by the skillful hands of the boomer as he flies the tanker's boom into the receiver aircraft's receptacle.

Imagine the difficulty of two bicycle riders side by side, giving each other high-fives at 20 miles per hour or two motorcycle riders at 50 miles per hour doing the same. The only differences between these two examples and air refueling are participating aircraft maneuver in three dimensions instead of just two and they do it eight times faster than motorcycles and 20 times faster than bicycles with machines more than 1,000 times bigger than both.

In the event of a malfunction or mismatched aircraft movements, it is the boom operator who often makes the decision to abort the flawed contact and attempt to try again. In this respect, tanker pilots are totally dependent on booms as they are the only crewmember on the tanker aircraft in a position to see the receiver aircraft, which is less than 50 feet behind. These strong bonds of trust bind the tanker team together for mission success.
Without attending any kind of pilot training, booms become a valued member of the KC-135 Stratotanker or KC-10 Extender crews they fly with. Since the vast majority of their flying time is spent on the flight deck, they take the time to learn how to help back up their pilots.

On one occasion when I was an aircraft commander, I barely took off in time to meet our high-priority receiver. Immediately after takeoff we entered the clouds, and my co-pilot and I became distracted by all the things we had to do. On that day my astute boom operator saved us by noticing I was about to fly into an un-forecasted storm. While I entered the clouds, he watched my weather radar screen and noticed a storm hidden inside the clouds. He said, "Pilot, boom, do you want to fly into that?" "Into what?" I said as I noticed the large red return on my co-pilot's radar screen and turned immediately to avoid the hidden storm. I avoided the storm, but our KC-135 was struck by lightning as we passed by. It was just another day in the life and service of that boom and another lesson for me of how dedicated and indispensible our booms are.

If you know a boom operator, let them know how much you appreciate their impact. If you never understood the responsibilities they carry, please consider how truly indispensible they are. If you are thankful for the continued freedom you experience in this dangerous world, thank a boom operator. They have certainly earned it!