Airman 1st Class Aidan Clark got engaged Wednesday and helped refuel fighter jets 25,000 feet above the ground Thursday somewhere in northeastern Nevada.
“I’m on cloud nine right now,” Clark said. “I am truly blessed to be here.”
The fighter jets, more commonly known as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, are preparing to perform during SkyFest on Saturday and Sunday at Fairchild Air Force Base.
SkyFest is a biennial airshow that draws around 70,000 spectators to the Air Force Base. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the popular event to cancel last year.
The Thunderbirds whipped across the Fairchild skies Thursday after a little help from Clark and his colleagues on board a 120,000-pound KC-135 Stratotanker.
Fairchild is home to the largest tanker fleet in the Air Force and the world, with 68 KC-135s. There are 479 tankers in the Air Force.
Two KC-135s departed from Fairchild and flew south to refuel seven Thunderbirds, which left from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, in midair.
“We’re basically just a flying gas station,” said Lt. Brooks Hardy, who co-piloted one of the KC-135s.
Col. Cassius Bentley, commander of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, and Lt. Col. Clayton Ward piloted the aircraft with Hardy, while Clark and Airman 1st Class Gregory Schuetz were in charge of refueling.
The plan was for the crew to refuel four of the seven Thunderbirds and the other KC-135 to refill the remaining three. However, a system malfunction in the boom pod, or back of the plane where the refueling happens, allowed only Bentley’s aircraft to refuel two Thunderbirds, while the other KC-135 refilled the other five.
“This office is really awesome,” Schuetz said while lying on his stomach in the boom pod. “I call it my office in the sky. It’s a lot better than sitting at a computer all day, that’s for sure.”
The Thunderbirds approached – in formation – the rear of the KC-135, waiting for their fuel tanks to be filled.
“It can be hectic at times because we’re coordinating with different agencies and everything to make sure we have the airspace available to do the air refueling,” Schuetz said after the KC-135 returned to Fairchild.
He said he communicated over the radio with his KC-135 pilots and Thunderbirds pilots to ensure a safe refueling.
Sometimes, the fighter jets need their jet fuel quickly so they can depart to their mission, Schuetz said.
“A lot of times we’re in a time crunch,” Schuetz said. “So if they can’t get their gas in the time available to them, then that could be detrimental.”
As for SkyFest, the two-day event is free to attend.
Gates open at 9 a.m. each day, and aerial performances will run noon to 4:30 p.m.
The Thunderbirds will headline the performances and start at 3:15 p.m. both days.
The event also includes static displays, a children’s zone, vendors and other exhibits.
This year marks the 80th year of Fairchild and the 75th anniversary of the Air Force.
For more information, including parking, visit fairchildskyfest.com.
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