"Pilot, Boom's stowed and Latched, Checking off with Oxygen"
1-1C-135(K)(R)(I)-1-1: Flying Two Aircraft In Close Vertical Proximity Is Unsafe.
It's been a while since I resurrected the Boom Operator Picture/Question and Answer thread, but in light of our tragic accident this week, I feel
it's necessary to let fellow members know exactly what a boom operator does on a daily basis. At any given time there are roughly 1200 boom operators
in the military, with only six to seven hundred active duty. That's a small group to belong to. Every single bomb that is dropped in combat
operations has been "touched" so to speak by a boom operator. We are the force extender in the War on Terrorism, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom,
etc. September 11, 2001, when the second plane struck the World Trade Center, our base went into threatcon DELTA. The base was locked down and all
tanker crews were sent home to pack and get crew rest. Around 10pm that night, the first crews started getting called for deployments. Sept 12, 2001,
at 2:30 am, we launched from Grand Forks AFB, ND and headed to Goose Bay, Canada to set up the Air Bridge. For those not in the Military or have never
heard, the Air Bridge is just as it sounds: A way to get fighters and bombers from the United States into the AOR as quick as possible. Tankers went
to Goose Bay, Thule, Iceland, Mildenhall RAF, etc., and launched to keep fighters and bombers airborne on a continuous mission to the middle East.
After one flight in the Air Bridge, our tanker was deployed to a tiny remote nation in the Persian Gulf, home of the Fifth Fleet of the Navy,
Bahrain wasn’t this great paradise city full of places called “gold town” or even full of beaches for us. We had a runway and a building when we
first arrived. Crews were already setting up makeshift tents in the tiny island nation for future aircrews to get rest before the combat missions
started. Some tankers were already flying the three and a half hours into Afghanistan, completely around Iran airspace, to avoid conflict with that
country (they were already shaking). The weird part about being in Bahrain was that the location was deemed classified at the time and designated with
a base “(letter)” designation (not sure if that has been declassified yet…but we will call it base Q). Slowly but surely we built up base Q to
the point that it was homey enough to live on. We even had a gulf course (completely sand of course), and our own private beach access (of course with
barb wire preventing anyone from taking a swim in the wonderful Persian Gulf).
Because of the close proximity to Iran, we lived in a constant threat of some crew flying into their airspace and violating some law, allowing for the
launch of Iran’s missiles in our direction. Luckily we had Patriot batteries surrounding the base (and they were used once in the Middle East on an
aircraft, although at a different location). For the next two to three weeks, we flew everyday, and when we weren’t flying or sleeping, we were
constructing the base.
Our first deployment lasted 93 days, which is quite a bit for any aircrew in the Air Force due to FAA flight restrictions (yes they still had
oversight, even during war). After the first deployment, we were sent home to rest and “reset” our flying hours. As soon as we remembered who our
families were, we were sent back out to the desert (two weeks at home…). Most boom operators ribbon racks resembled those of General Officers
This type of air campaign would go on for a year until things finally settled down enough in Afghanistan for the constant bombing to cease. But soon
we would be fighting a different war. A war that some people would question in the deadly aftermath.
On March 17, 2003, President Bush gave his famous speech telling Saddam and his sons that they had 48 hours to leave Iraq or face war “at a time of
our choosing”. By this time we were in Al Udeid AB, Qatar, along with a heavy buildup of every aircraft imaginable (and some still classified). I
remember a squadron meeting once where the OPS Group Commander told us to “be careful what you say over the phone, and pay no attention to the
black, pointy shaped aircraft and others that were coming to the base”. Tension was rising at the base, since we were on constant alert of the
impending Iraq war, all the while still flying the three and a half hour each way flights into Afghanistan.
It was hard to not notice the F-117’s fly into the base. Everyone knew they were coming, arriving months before the Iraq war kicked off in March.
When they first got into country, we were pushing boom operators through training so fast just to get them into the AOR that most were not qualified
to refuel the damn thing! Much to the dismay of the full bird’s and stars on the base and AOR, training sorties commenced, at night, under the
utmost of secrecy. Were pretty sure Saddam knew they were there anyway so why did it matter.
On March 20th, between midnight and one in the morning local time, the tankers launched on their missions, but instead of heading east into
Afghanistan, they headed north to the Saudi border. That first night was kind of nerve racking. This wasn’t like Afghanistan, where your worst
threat was going to be some Taliban guy shooting a MANPAD at us. This was Iraq, and a somewhat Iraqi Airforce that was pretty much destroyed 11 years
earlier by Bush senior. The same Nighthawks that took out the air defense of Iraq in Desert Storm were going to do the job again, without a single
loss of life or aircraft. That had to be demoralizing to the Iraqi military to know they couldn’t stop the inevitable, again! F-117’s, with the
tankers supporting them, were only responsible for one percent of the flights in Iraq during Desert Storm yet inflicted over 40 percent of the damage
without a single dent on an aircraft!
Tankers and the boom operators that flew on them did their jobs and did them with 100% mission effectiveness. We never cancelled a flight, broke down
(like we would in Hawaii), or complained about flying. Training flights completed, we were ready to go to war, again. Before the “go” order was
given, we had several air refueling tracks located on the Saudi side of the border, with a tanker stacked at every three thousand feet. Here’s a
picture of what it would look like, except imagine a tanker at every 3k feet from 18,000 to 31,000 feet!)
(The blue tracks were where the tankers were before the “go” order, and the red is where we ended up after the order.)
This marks the second time in our history that a tanker was “in country” so to speak. Only one tanker had ever flown into Iraqi airspace due to
the HVAA or High Value Airborne Asset placed on tankers in general, and that was during Desert Storm when we launched fighters to the eastern part of
Iraq to prevent defectors to Iran. Some other members of this club include AWACS, JSTARS, RIVET JOINT, COBRA BALL, etc.