Eight fighter aircraft in need of fuel flanked the wings of the larger plane.
One by one, the highly maneuverable F-16 Fighting Falcons, called the Thunderbirds, dropped to position themselves under the belly of the KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling mission Monday morning.
Their altitude: 28,000 feet. Their location: Somewhere over the Western United States.
The crew of the KC-135 refueling tanker from Fairchild Air Force Base was tasked with delivering 5,000 pounds of fuel to each of the Thunderbirds in midair.
The mission was like numerous others performed by the tankers and their crews day in and day out around the world. Crews often consist of airmen from both the Air Force’s 92nd Air Refueling Wing and the Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing, both located at Fairchild.
“Our tankers fly training missions every day so that our air crew, both the pilots and the boom operators, are trained and certified to deploy, so that they can support any refueling request, anywhere in the world,” said Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski, a Fairchild spokesman. “Basically, someone needed fuel, they called us and we were on the job.”
During the flight, the boom operator laid belly-down in the boom pod to get fuel to each Thunderbird waiting below.
The Thunderbirds, which were heading home to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas from Canada, are the U.S. Air Force’s air demonstration squadron, performing aerobatics at air shows around the world.
Empty, the KC-135 weighs about 125,000 pounds. For every 3 pounds the plane weighs when full, 2 pounds are fuel.
“Any American aircraft can be refueled anywhere in the world at any time specifically through the air refueling mission,” Buzanowski said. “We have the most robust air refueling capabilities of any air force in the world. And because of that, we can put fighters and bombers over Afghanistan or C-17s in Antarctica and anywhere in between, specifically because of the tanker mission.”
The tanker took off from Fairchild’s recently completed $43 million runway. Air Force officials hope the 14,000-foot runway will be in use for another 50 years.