Birmingham is home to an impressive Air National Guard unit with over 90 years of history in Alabama. FOX6 News Anchor Beth Shelburne recently had the privilege to fly with the 117th Air Refueling Wing to help give viewers an up close look at their important and dangerous work and she recounts her afternoon here.
Chief Master Sargeant Len Naugher is a boom operator and has been with the 117th for 31 years.
"We maintain readiness so we can be deployed to any location in the world," he says.
The 117th flies the KC-135 Stratotanker, built in the 1950's. Major Lacy Gunnoe says it's one of the most efficient planes around.
"It's a reliable aircraft. Even if we lost all of our electrics right now, we could still put our gear down, we could still put our flaps down. The crew concept is amazing, so I don't want to describe it as old, I want to describe it as reliable, dynamic. It's the best refueler I think in the inventory. It's still a challenge to fly, which makes it fun," says Major Gunnoe.
FOX6 News gets to ride along for the fun and visit with the pilot, Colonel Doug Preston and co-pilot First Lieutenant Roberta Parker, who's been flying the KC-135 for less than a year. I ask her how she likes flying the Stratotanker.
"I love this," First Lt. Parker says enthusiastically. "I love this, I love Birmingham. I got really fortunate because Birmingham is a guard base and they're very few active duty stationed here, so the fact that I'm here. I am loving it. I'm really enjoying learning because you very rarely as active duty fly with a Colonel because they're doing other things and here, you get to fly with that experience."
We leave the cockpit and head down to the boom pod to join CMSgt. Naugher to watch a mid-air refueling. It's a tight squeeze with little head room and we have to lie down on our bellies to get a good look at the boom through a window on the floor of the boom pod. Then comes the nail biting moment when an F-15 flies into view and hovers just over twenty feet below us. The fighter pilot is so close we can see his face.
CMSgt. manually lowers the boom and as soon as there is contact with the fighter jet, the refueling gets underway. It's all done by hand and boom operators must have excellent vision and a year of special training. I ask CMSgt. if he's ever had some scary moments during a refueling.
"There's always a few scary moments, it's usually at night, you see the weather today- that always can be a factor. The receiver pilots, they have days just like we have, none of this is done automatic," he says.
Flying so close is a big challenge for pilots. This type of airborne ballet creates an aerodynamic force that requires masterful control of the KC-135.
1st Lt. Roberta Parker says there are some breathtaking moments.
"When you hear the sound of the booms voice, that sounds like the receiver might be a little bit too close or not as stable as you would prefer them to be and then you just kinda... hands on the throttle! Ready to take care of what happens," she says with her eyes on the sky.
Colonel Doug Preston has been in the military for 28 years. I asked him about the dangerous element of his job.
"We rarely have an incident," says Col. Preston, "but there are times that airplanes have contacted the boom in an inappropriate way and damaged something, so it does happen occasionally, but we're trained for it and it becomes routine."
It may be routine for the 117th Refueling Wing, but for the lucky media members who got to ride along, it was amazing.
CMSgt. Naugher shares a story about the unit's contribution on September 11, 2001.
"We flew that night on 9-11 and were refueling fighters over major metropolitan areas and we were the only ones up there. And I sit back and think this is what we get paid to do, this is what we get trained to do. We hope we never have to use it, but that's what we're for," says CMSgt. Naugher.
Birmingham should be proud of this impressive Air Refueling Wing and we thank the 117th for their service.
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