(56 pix: intro, followed by detailed account of refueling flight with a B-52)
On Wednesday, July 21, 2010 I had the extreme pleasure of getting to go along on a KC-135 refueling flight operated by the 74th Air Refueling Squadron, which is part of the 434th Air Refueling Wing, based at the Grissom Air Reserve Base near Peru, Indiana. That puts Grissom ARB is about 60 miles straight north of Indianapolis, and about 50 miles south-southwest of where I'm at in Warsaw, Indiana. It was a special 'social media' flight that gave me and other folks from outlets like Indy Transponder, Flight Line Internet Radio, My Sky Mom, myTransponder and more, the opportunity to see an air refueling mission up close and personal. Wow! I must say it was an awesome experience!
Back in the 80's I lived on a small, country airport about 40 miles from Grissom, and at that time they had a lot of A-10's operating off what was then an active Air Force Base. They had a training route that ran right by the airport and I'd see them having fun practicing low level ops on a pretty regular basis. But eventually the A-10's were moved away, and in 1994, the 'active' part of the base was closed with operations being changed over to a 'Reserve' base. I must admit that I was clueless as to what that all really meant except that when I'd drive by on the way to Indy in the last 10 years, I didn't ever notice much activity like back in the day. Fortunately, my visit on that gorgeous Wednesday about four weeks ago showed me that not only is Grissom alive and well, with quite a bit of activity (that a simple drive-by would likely miss), but they are doing a truly excellent job as well.
I also learned that the Air Force Reserve is made up of people who typically work one weekend each month plus a two-week stretch during the year. The Reserve also has some people working full-time, and then they've got some private (civilian) contract workers as well. Grissom ARB has a mix of all three, with about 2,000 in total. Grissom is the largest employer in the local area and has an economic impact of about $100 million each year. There really is a lot going on there! Plus, the refueling service provided by the 434th has a direct and significant impact on the active Air Force fleet. This is essential work that keeps the Air Force flying. A total of 16 KC-135's are officially stationed at Grissom, but often, some of those airplanes are actually deployed around the world along side the traditional Air Force.
The other thing I learned on this day was just how impressive the people and equipment are that operate out of Grissom. The KC-135 I rode on was built in 1962, a year after I was born. Honestly, that airplane looked like it only had 200 hours on it, it was that clean! And you can be sure it has worked its tail off over the years (and continues to do so still today)... the maintenance done at Grissom is spectacular. Plus, everyone we came in contact with was doing a great job, and the air crew we had was friendly and very professional. It was all impressive and very encouraging. I felt very proud to know that the people serving in the Air Force Reserve are serving this country at the highest level, and for that, I say Thank You!
Of course, one of the most exciting parts of the trip was to get to see a B-52 tucked in nice and tight getting a big drink of JP-8. It was at least twice as cool as I could have imagined. The next 50+ pix tell the full story of my ride with the fine people of the 74th Air Refueling Squadron operating out of Grissom ARB.
The morning started with an 8:00 am briefing that gave an overview of the work by the Air Force Reserve in general, along with details of the work and workforce at Grissom. That was followed by emergency procedure info related to the upcoming flight. The stiff guy in the helmet against the wall never said a word, probably because we has just a dummy dressed up in a flight suit : )
After the briefing and a pass thru their sorta TSA style passenger screening area, it was out to the bus to get a ride out to our airplane on the ramp. I was impressed at every turn how good the equipment was without ever looking like they were wasting tax dollars. As a guy who might be seen at a party where they serve tea, that was a really great thing to see.
The morning sun was shining brightly behind the KC-135 as we pulled up... it made a beautiful sight. As soon as we got out, they let us walk around the airplane as a group to get a good look at our ride. They cautioned us not to stray far from the official guys leading us around tho as we might arouse the intense interest of very large people not seen. Everyone was very well behaved : )
We started checking things out at the nose. Most of the riders were getting some details from one of the flight crew. I caught a little of the convo, but decided I should keep the camera busy so you'd have something to see.
I found this access door very interesting. It makes a pretty slick way to get on board. And no, we didn't get to go in that way. I didn't realize until the end of the trip that the top side of that hole is literally a hole in the floor right across the cockpit floor from what used to be the flight engineer station (it's a 2-man cockpit these days)
Moving around to the aircraft's right side, the awe of being this close to going for a refueling ride is settling down to a general giddiness, which is allowing me to notice things like how great the condition of the airplane is. This is a good time to say how much I like the look of a KC-135 now that we have those snazzy fan engines hangin' off the wing. Compared to the old days of the skinny engines, these fans look just right to me!
OK, now I know you can't see all the detail here, but surely you can see how clean and crisp everything looks. This airframe is nearly spotless. I can't ever remember walking around an airliner that looked this good... well except for maybe that time at LAX in 1970 where I got to walk around United's first 747 (N4703U) before it went on the line! Thanx dad!
And here we have the business end of the airplane. The light gray paint made it easy to see the vortex generators on the bottom of the stab. If you're like me and like the little details, then you probably think that's cool too. The little black wings on the refueling boom are what the boom operator is controlling to position it where he wants it. The actual probe for fuel delivery is tucked up inside the gray bevel-cut end. There's a control at the operator station that will extend the boom out about 20 feet total, which is added to the approximate 27 feet of the gray part of the boom. That makes the full, extended length around 47 feet. Sounds pretty long til you see a B-52 stuck on the end of it!
Here's a better view of the actual probe end sitting inside the end of the gray part of the boom fully retracted. The pod where the boom operator lays down is just past where the people are standing.
The boom operator pod is positioned just below the regular cabin floor. The little window seen at the left in this picture is off to the side of the operator's head, and there's another like it on the other side. The main window is actually back and the left of the bigger window seen here. The larger gray panel that holds that big window you see tips up out of the way to allow the operator to see the receiver aircraft.
Continuing on around the airplane giving you a good view of the wing flaps and landing gear. You can also see the circles on the left side of the fuselage (top right of the pic). This is where the APU is, it's actually mounted inside the cabin in a large sealed cabinet or box. One of the circles is the intake and the other the exhaust. They used it to start the engines, and it was a bit warm and stunk up the cabin a little for a few minutes, but that all went away quickly after it was shut down.
Landing gear and flap details.
A closer look at the main gear legs. I'm tellin' ya, clean, clean, clean!
If you're like me, you gotta look in the nacelle at the nice big fan. I like the simplicity of the blade numbering system... and looks like 44 blades in all. The engines are CFM56 (military designation: F108) and are similar to engines found on several other aircraft like the Boeing 737, the A320, and even the A340. More than 20,000 of the CFM56 have been built since its introduction in 1974. The engines first starting showing up on the KC-135 in the 80's.
A nice stair truck was used for boarding, and instead of having an airliner style door like the Boeing 707 that the KC-135 is based on, that nice big cargo door is used to get inside.
Here you can see how big the hole is to walk thru! It was pretty cool to have such a large opening to get on board. The up to 200,000 pounds of fuel used for transfer is carried in the lower fuselage and wings, so the cabin can be used to transport cargo when needed, and this big door makes loading pretty easy. Depending on the fuel load on the aircraft, about 80,000 pounds of cargo can be loaded.
At the top of the stairs, I stopped and got a pic looking out the wing. I just love the look of those CFM56 engine nacelles. These engines are the second generation of replacement engines for the KC-135, but the big difference is that they have that big fan on the front. These engines produce almost twice the thrust of the old original J-57 engines that the KC-135 started life with way back in 1957. They are more fuel efficient and much quieter, and the extra power allows the airplane to deliver more fuel inflight. The CFM56 re-engine program really breathed new life into the KC-135 back in the 80's.
We quickly move into our new home for the next 4 hours or so. I really had no idea what to expect for seating, and first thought that those side-facing red sling seats would probably be uncomfortable, but I was surprised to find they were really pretty nice. Not sure I'd wanna sit all that long in them tho. You should look closely at them, they're most likely what coach seats will look like on budget airlines in a few years : )
In the green flight suits is our 5 person crew for the day. This is a great place to say a really big 'Thank You' to Staff Sgt. Brandon Toth (boom operator), 1st Lt, Joel Nickelson (pilot left seat), 1st Lt. Jessica Hodson (additional pilot), Staff Sgt. Robert Faurot (boom operator), and Capt. Matthew Walz (pilot right seat). They were well qualified, extremely professional and the made the whole experience a real joy.
You can't really see it here, but this chart had our route for the day. Our start at Grissom is at the upper right of the page and then we were to head southwest toward the St Louis area. A turn to nearly straight south would then have us meeting up with the B-52 not far from Memphis, and then continued interaction with the receiver aircraft down toward New Orleans. It wasn't just gonna be a quick sip and go for the B-52... we were told they would be doing training ops with several connects and disconnects training different pilots with refueling experience. Since there were 11 of us 'social media' types on board, this meant we'd all get a good chance to see the B-52 from the boom pod windows.
The cockpit crew prepping for departure and making us feel right at home.
Here's the cabin view from my seat. This is pretty far aft in the cabin, not very far in front of the APU. I had some pix of the APU but they didn't turn out, so you'll have to use your imagination! The APU sits in a cabinet takes up about half of the cabin width and is around 4 feet tall and probably about 4 feet deep. I chose this seat as it was one of the few seating areas to have a window. It was a pretty small window at that, no where near as large as a standard airliner, but I thought it would be nice to get some pix on takeoff and climb out.
Here's a view thru that window as we taxi out.
We're in the air! Acceleration was brisk but smooth and the view on this beautiful morning was fantastic. What a great day to go refueling a B-52!
A little cabin reflection showing on the window here. For no bigger than the window was, and the fact that my seat faced sideways toward the center of the airplane, I was please with how well these pix turned out. The little puffy clouds below with the green Indiana farm fields looked so nice... and that big beautiful blue sky and clouds above was calling our name : )
After takeoff, we were allowed to get up and move about the cabin. This was a great time to peek all around the airplane as well as visit with the other folks on board. The cockpit was accessible pretty much all the time, which was awesome! Here we are passing thru 19,540 feet and clipping along at 288 knots here. The partial glass cockpit looked like a nice fit in this 1962 KC-135. We were still a ways from reaching the meeting point with the B-52, but the boom operators would soon be prepping things in the back for our expected JP-8 drinking guest.
This was a pretty dramatic moment right here! The outer window on the boom pod had been opened (you can see the clouds reflecting off it at the top of the pic) but the boom itself was still stowed up against the fuselage. The view looking back at the clouds below was stunning! It's funny how this pic takes on an 'space program' feel with the look of the clouds, and the way they're framed by a shape sorta like a space capsule. It was an amazing view.
Shortly after, one of the boom operators was in position getting things ready. This pic is taken from up above on the floor of the airplane. There are large access holes like the one you're looking thru on each side of the boom pod that provide access. The operator lays down on a padded cot-like structure with a control panel in front of him. The stick near his left hand is for extending and retracting the inner part of the boom. The other control stick for flying the little wings on the boom is mounted under the cot. You reach down with your right arm and it allows for movement up and down as well as sideways. While the entire process was under way refueling the B-52, we were able to be positioned right next to the operator, on either side, getting the awesome view thru the window.
Close-up view of the boom operator panel.
Going thru the boom prep procedures.
This view is from the right side of the operator with the boom now release and trailing behind. We were running along at about 300 mph at this time and the clouds below were changing pretty fast. at the moment, not a cloud in sight.
This is what used to be the flight engineer station in the cockpit. The airplane has long since been revised to being just a 2-man crew, so this area serves many purposes... like a good place to get some paperwork done.
I was spending some back up in the cockpit seeing if I could get a sign that the B-52 was near. This gave me a chance to get some detailed pix. This is just a cool view looking thru the throttle quadrant at the entire panel.
A closer look shows us at about 275 knots, level at 27,000 feet and a heading of 184. seems like a great condition to find a B-52. The pictures didn't turn out due to the sunny glare, but right after this pic, the B-52 was spotted ahead and to our left. He slowly moved on behind us and then slid over into place.
Hey, Hey! We've got awesome looking clouds back and there's the B-52! You just can't really describe how cool a sight this is.
Moving closer into position. You can see the refueling port doors are open on the centerline of the fuselage just behind the cockpit area.
Now the airplane is getting close to being in position where the boom operator can do the final detail work of getting the boom end engaged into the airplane.
Here, he's flying the boom to make contact. You can tell by the shadow that the boom end is getting very close to the destination. It's just amazing to see an airplane like a B-52 so close to you like this. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a better view of the B-52 pilots. You could see their chest, but due to the position of everything, you couldn't see their faces. But still, that was an unbelievable sight!
Here we are fully connected and transferring fuel.
As I mentioned before, the B-52 was actually following us for quite a while as we switched boom operators and they switch pilots. In this pic, the refueling work for the day is finally done. The boom is up and out of the way and the B-52 is beginning to prepare for departure. The refueling mission wasn't just an opportunity to keep this B-52 in the air longer without stopping, but it was a training exercise for everyone involved. Ultimately that's the nature of military operations... practice, practice, practice until you are called on to do it for real.
Now the B-52 begins to drop away from the tight refueling position.
I just happened to be down in the pod when the refueling all came to an end. That allowed me to watch the B-52 as they moved well below us and then slid to our left. The little small side windows I pointed out on the ramp pix above came in very handy right then. I was on the operators right side, which is really the airplane's left side since we were facing aft. I could see thru that little window that I had this incredible view of the B-52 below as they slowly accelerated away from us. Wow! Another one of those sights that I really can't describe... simply awesome.
As we head back to the north toward home, the view was wonderful. It was a fabulous day to go flying!
Back in the cockpit as we travel mostly north at a little over 30,000 feet.
Here we are on the downhill part of the trip and making some turns.
The world is beginning to look a lot more like the one we left behind several hours before. It was also just a dandy day for great looking clouds : )
Hey lookie there, we found the runway! I was blessed with an even more comfortable seat for landing... sitting at the old flight engineer station!
Final approach now, hands on the throttles - 1,130 feet at 133 knots. As was the case for the entire flight, the crew flew the airplane in a truly professional manner.
Nice touchdown right on the centerline.
Getting some parking directions back on the ramp at Grissom ARB.
All parked and going thru the shutdown procedures.
Time for a happy bunch of passengers to gather up their stuff and get out.
Wow, looking back at that amazing Boeing product built in 1962 and still serving America in 2010! That seriously says something for both the people who originally built the airplane, and for those who have maintained it over the years. Great job!
On the bus ride back to the buildings we passed by some of the maintenance hangars. I'm planning to make another trip down to Grissom here in the future to get some pix and details of the maintenance facility and the people who work there. The stellar condition of the airplanes makes me want to see how it's all done.
The entire experience riding along on this mission of the 434th Air Refueling Wing at Grissom ARB was fantastic. I very much appreciate the opportunity, and I'm especially thankful to the men and women who make service in the Air Force Reserve a priority in their life. It's also important to remember the companies who make allowances for their employees to be able to put in their two weeks each year. The collaborative effort of these people help to make the United States Air Force strong and always at the ready to protect america.
Thank you all.