Aerial refueling- A unique ability that demands hard training, team work in the aircraft and between the divisions, and mostly constant attention to details
Shani Pomes and Lilach Gonen
“Controlled Air Collision”, is apparently how people from the aerial teams describe the aerial refueling flights to anyone who thinks the task is like filling up the tank of a car, only in the sky. In fact, this is the most accurate description of two aircrafts flying at high speed, meeting in the sky and connecting, while the second phase exemplifies the precision and the delicacy that are required for a flight of this kind.
“You’re connecting to the plane in the air and it’s very delicate. Most of the risks arise from this very process, because a mistake like getting too close or being too aggressive can create a situation in which the person who carries out the refueling is injured or the fueling pipe gets damaged”, explained First Lieutenant G’, a combat pilot. “This is just a more delicate flight, you have to be more concentrated and maintain your position, and you do everything with finesse when you’re around a Boeing 707, just as you carefully distance yourself from it when you finish in order to avoid a collision between the two aircrafts”.
Secrets of the Boeing 707
Aerial Refueling is thought of as one of the most important tasks of “Desert Giants” squadron in Nevatim. In flights inside and outside of Israel, the squadron operates the Boeing 707 planes and has a significant role in the refueling of combat jets and transport planes in order to expand their flight range. To an outside observer, it quickly becomes clear that this is a complex task that requires a high level of concentration from the aerial team personnel.
First, every aerial refueling starts with a meeting. “The person who carries out the refueling establishes a point in the air where I am supposed to meet him. He maintains a set speed and I have to catch up with him and fly behind him”, explains First Lieutenant G’. “When we arrive at the refueling point, I make eye contact with the crew in the underbelly of the Boeing 707 who direct me with the utmost precision to the rendezvous point, and based on what they signal to me, I fix my location”. “The closed airspace is under the exclusive management of the person who carries out the refueling and any plane that enters the airspace needs to get his approval when he is the one who defines the height and the location”, explained Captain B’, a Boeing 707 Pilot from the “Desert Giants” squadron. “When combat jets get really close to the refueling plane, the person in charge of the refueling is the one who guides them if they need to fly lower or fly higher. He does so with the help of agreed upon signals”.
Two of the planes settle in the air, and a few minutes later, the critical step in the process begins: The connection between the quick combat jet and the heavy refueling plane. At this step in the process, there should be a refueling pipe that extends out from the back of the Boeing 707 to connect to the small refueling receptacle of the combat jet.
“At the moment of connection, you can’t feel anything. You just see the pipe passing behind your head”, First Lieutenant G’ adds. “The person who carries out the refueling announces via the two way radio that the connection has been successfully executed and that he has started to transfer the fuel. The refueling lasts a few minutes, until they announce to you that they have disengaged and they update you about the amount of fuel received. After the disengagement, you have to distant yourself from the Boeing. To accomplish this, they fly slower, distance themselves, and move aside to the place where they need to be”.
The Big Boom
Onboard the big Boeing 707 that transports the refueling, there are a number of people from the aerial team, among them there is also a “boomer”, the manager of the refueling process, like the conductor of an orchestra, who is tasked with making sure operation is carried out smoothly.
“The ‘boomer’ is a flight engineer who obtained special certification for this position”, explains Major T’, commander of the flight engineers’ division in the “Desert Giants” squadron. “He sits next to the tail, at the rear of the aircraft and the refueling flight cannot be carried out without him. It is a senior certification that is very difficult to obtain”.
During the flight, the “boomer” has no other role, and when there is no more refueling, he does not engage in other activities. When the time comes to transfer the fuel to the aircraft he springs into action: He manages a channel on the two way radio with the combat pilots, allows the planes from the formation to enter the refueling area and directs. Beyond that, he is also the one who is charged with handling the refueling pipe.
“On the way to the connection point, the “boomer” removes the pipe, carries out a number of checks related to his operation and confirms that he has full control over it”, says Major T’. The operation of the refueling pipe itself has a few steps. There are two joysticks: one that moves the refueling tube 360 degrees and another that inserts and removes the pipe from the airplane”.
But even after the connection, the “boomer” is not able to rest on his laurels. “Even after we have carried out the connection, we still have to fly the plane manually and be alert. I cannot connect the pipe and switch to autopilot because everything is dynamic”, explains Major T’. “As a matter of fact, there are several elements that need to be taken into account during the flight, and as such, we have to control the refueling pipe and track the movements of each of the planes.
One at a time
While it is true that only two aircrafts take part in the refueling, because coordination between them is essential and crucial to the success of the mission and requires much finesse and attention, the number of people involved in the mission is more than double the number of airplanes. During each refueling flight, the Captain, the co-pilot, the navigator, the flight engineer, and the “boomer” are all present for the mission and everyone is on the same network on the two way radio when they are joined by the people from the combat jets team. “Teamwork is carried out, first, when the co-pilot talks with the combat jet and then contact is made with the “boomer”, but aside from that, action on the part of the others who are present in the cockpit is needed to keep us in the right place”, explains Captain B’. “We are five people on the team and each one has to know when to say the right thing, mostly in case the situation gets complicated and there is a lot of data that needs to be considered”.
Each member of the team has to perform his duties and be alert and aware of what is happening in the rest of the plane. “It’s like a song, and everyone knows when it’s his turn to tune in. You find yourself flying very complex scenarios when the combat jet and the operator at the headquarters talk on the same channel of the two way radio. At the same time, the pilot flies the plane and the “boomer” connects the planes and carries out the refueling”, says Major T’, explaining the complexity. “When you hear this on the side, sometimes you don’t understand and you don’t hear what is being said, and so it is an art of sorts to know how to hear the right sentence and not to produce too much text, it is very delicate”.
In this song, the lead vocalist is the “boomer”, the one who is responsible for managing contact on the two way radio with the combat jet from the moment he enters the refueling space until he leave the plane.
Just as it takes two to tango, so it takes two to conduct a refueling flight. Every team has something to which it has to pay special attention, and every team needs to worry about avoiding uncontrolled air collision. “The consequences of any mistake you make can become apparent within seconds; every mistake has significant potential to adversely affect the security”, explains Captain B.’ Major T’ adds that “the biggest danger here is injury to the body of the combat jet, while the most dangerous type of damage is that done to the aircraft canopy, which can lead to shattering, pilot ejection from the cockpit, and loss of the aircraft. This has never happened before”.
Despite the complications and the dangers involved, aerial refueling provides the air force with meaningful operational capabilities that bring distant targets closer by expanding flight ranges of the combat jets. “At the end of the day, we understand that the State of Israel needs to have the possibility of extending its long arm. It is impossible to have such a long reach without aerial refueling”, says Major T’. “The combat jets can’t spend a lot of time in a certain place without receiving additional fuel while on a mission to protect the airspace. The refueling makes the planes operate with double their power. If a combat jet is capable of flying for a certain period of time, now that there is aerial refueling, it can fly even longer. It’s possible to take a small number of combat jets and get more out of them”.