The aircrews who make sure that no place is too far for the IAF delve into the complex and delicate mission which is aerial refueling
The “Desert Giants” Squadron, which operates the “Re’em” (Boeing 707) from Nevatim AFB, is exclusively responsible for aerial refueling in the IAF and is capable of refueling all types of aircraft: reconnaissance aircraft, fighter aircraft and transport aircraft. “Our mission is to extend range and time, or in other words, allow the IAF to reach any distance and allow its aircraft to stay in the air for any amount of time necessary to complete a mission”, explained Maj. Roei, Deputy Commander of the “Desert Giants” Squadron.
The responsibility for the execution of this complex mission falls on the boom operators, whose name is derived from the system they operate: the refueling boom. Boomers are qualified aircrew members, who complete their three year training in the IAF’s Flight Academy as flight engineers and after two to three years of serving as such, begin boomer conversion training which includes 25 training flights and a training period in a simulator in the USA.
The IAF began performing aerial refueling in the 1970’s and has since developed the strategic mission, in accordance with the development of operational requirements. In October 1985 Operation “Wooden Leg” for example, in which IAF aircraft attacked the PLO Headquarters in Tunisia, the “Baz” (F-15) aircraft that participated in the operation couldn’t have returned home without aerial refueling.
“Today, every fighter pilot in the IAF is trained for aerial refueling. One of the squadron’s main missions is maintaining this fitness and in order to do so, we train for unique scenarios day and night”, added Maj. Nir, a former Deputy Commander of the Squadron.
Cooperation is Key
One of the squadron’s greatest challenges is maintenance. “This is a very complex system with very little spare parts”, said Maj. Roei. “The system has been serving us for many years, it doesn’t have computerized parts and we have to utilize professional experts in order for all the systems to operate properly. We invest a lot of time into making sure that the aircraft are available”.
“The boomer is alone in his station, so if he is about to make a dangerous mistake, there is no one to stop him”, shared Maj. Nir. “So the rest of the team has to be very attentive to the refueling process”.
The complex mission requires optimal cooperation between the refueling and receiving aircraft, because a small misunderstanding or mistake might lead to devastating results. “The boom is not an intuitive system, because the boomer sits opposite from the flight direction”, described Maj. Nir. “My ‘right’ is ‘left’ for everybody else, so the boomer must have excellent coordination, an acquired skill”.
“Flying the aircraft while refueling requires sensitivity and high alertness. Rough flying makes it very difficult for the receiving aircraft. Turns, for example, have to be performed very gently”, described Lt. Col. (Res.) Erez, a pilot and captain in the squadron.
Conducting an Orchestra
The first stage in the refueling process is planning, in which the flight course is planned and the necessary amounts of fuel and time spans are calculated. The fuel tanks are then filled with the accurate amount of fuel necessary for the mission and the mission begins. The boomer station is equipped with a 3D screen and glasses, two signal lights which guide the receiving aircraft and a foot-operated communications system the boomer can use to communicate with the receiving aircraft while his hands are busy.
A high level of attention division and attention to detail is required when performing an aerial refueling mission, the boomer must be attentive to the movement of the tanker while constantly calculating the fuel output in order to make sure that the tanker has enough fuel to complete the sortie. “Managing communication while refueling is like conducting an orchestra”, described Lt. Col. (Res.) Erez.
Maj. Roei concluded: “As far as we are concerned, this is the squadron’s main mission. Every other mission we perform can also be performed by others”.