Master Sgt. Jon Swinney peered out the rear window of an airplane, viewing Monday’s crisp, blue sky and miles of western Kansas plains turning autumnal shades of orange and yellow, when the landscape was abruptly punctured by an almost alien-looking object heading toward his window.
Swinney is one of 24 boom operators with the 190th Air Refueling Wing. On Monday, a four-man crew conducted a training exercise taking them from Forbes Field to Dodge City to Kansas City, Mo., and back to Forbes, as they practiced refueling three B-2 stealth bombers — midair, at a ground speed of 400 mph.
Col. Jarrod Frantz said there is demand for their refueling capabilities. One reason is because many bases around the world closed after World War II, making distances between them greater. The second reason is because of the number of threats in the world, he said, pointing to regions such as the Ukraine, the Middle East and North Korea.
In a conflict zone, in-flight refueling can make the difference between life and death, said Frantz, who joined the unit in 1985.
The Kansas Air National Guard operates under a federal mission that deploys members internationally as well as domestically. Crews have responded to tornadoes and wildfires that have hit Kansas, and other states that have sustained hurricanes and other natural disasters. At times, they are also called on for help by local agencies like the Topeka Fire Department. In addition to the refueling unit, they also have a civil engineering unit, a fire department and a medical unit.
"There’s never a dull day here," Frantz said.
The unit has about 900 members. Two-thirds serve part-time and one-third are full-time employees. So far this year, about 250 members have been deployed. Another 40 or so are deploying to the Middle East this week, Frantz said. Most deployments are about 40 days, but they can go up to a year.
The base has 12 aircraft, one of which is the KC-135 involved in the training exercise.
Docking the boom equipment requires precision and communication with the two pilots in the cockpit.
Col. Chuck Remboldt uses a combination of autopilot and manual control to maneuver the plane so that it aligns perfectly in terms of altitude and timing with the B-2s.
The crew — Remboldt, Swinney, Capt. Adam See and Chief Jim Spurlock, who is also a boom operator — has nearly 100 years of combined experience.
While flying nearly 30,000 feet up in the air, Remboldt recalls his three favorite missions: rescuing Scott O’Grady, an Air Force pilot who was shot down in the Balkans; responding to a plane carrying golf player Payne Stewart that lost pressure and eventually crashed; and an air refueling mission in Afghanistan, where they provided support to forces who were under heavy fire.
Back in the rear, Spurlock climbs down into the boom pod, a small, confined area where the boom operator lays flat on his stomach to conduct the refueling. Swinney said it was designed to get the operator as close to the window as possible.
The plane can carry up to 30,000 extra gallons of fuel, contained in the wings and the area used for cargo on a commercial plane. Two tanks can offload fuel through the boom.
Leaning over the dashboard of gauges and dials, Spurlock completes the docking and retracts the boom as the stealth bomber eases out of sight.