Meet the tanker that keeps Ellsworth B-1s mission ready from the skies

The KC-135 has provided air refueling capabilities to the Air Force for over 60 years

BOX ELDER, S.D. — Many aircraft aside from the usual B-1 bombers are in the skies over Ellsworth Air Force Base this week for Combat Raider – an exercise that began as a training mission for the bomber but has expanded to include birds of all shapes and sizes. One of those birds is a KC-135 which keeps the Air Force flying in times of need.

Visiting Ellsworth AFB this week is a KC-135 from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild AFB, WA.

The KC-135 Stratotanker provides crucial air support to aircraft all over the world from various branches and countries. Behind many missions making headlines around the world, flies a KC-135 keeping others in the air.


“If they need to stay on target or need to get somewhere that’s further away then we can provide the fuel to enable them to stay on station longer,” said  Capt Zach Schneider, KC-135 pilot.

During Combat Raider, tankers help bombers, fighters, and cargo planes practice air-refueling so when the time comes for use overseas, they’re ready.

“We as an Air Force don’t go to war as a platform, frankly we don’t go to war as just the Air Force,” said Lt Col Jonathan Slinkard, 28th Operations Support Squadron Commander. “The key to how we perform our mission is how we integrate with other platforms so together, each of us is better than one platform could be individually.”

The KC-135 can take off weighing up to 322,500 lbs. On board, two pilots in the cockpit, two crew chiefs, and a boom operator.

The pilots arrive several hours before the flight, making sure everything is in order.

“It’s not like the airlines where they just hop in the seat and read their flight plan,” said Schneider. “We’re here making sure everything’s good to go, flipping switches. We know everything about the aircraft.”

After takeoff, the tanker executes a carefully choreographed meet up in the skies. During Wednesday’s training flight, a B-1 from the 34th bomb squadron at Ellsworth AFB is the receiver.

“The really cool thing is we’ve got this trust between the aircrew and the boom operator,” said Schneider. “I can’t see what’s going on in the back so I’ve got a lot of trust in him to tell me what’s going on in the back and he knows what he’s doing.”

Once they’ve met up with the B-1, it’s time to work. The boom operator crawls into a space only a few feet tall, lays on his stomach, and prepares the boom.

“Once they’re ready to go and we’re ready to go, we extend the boom out to about 10 feet and let them know we’re ready for [air refueling],” said SSgt Nicholas Hauck, boom operator.

Making a connection with another aircraft close enough to see the pilots in the other cockpit seems unnatural but they make it work with precision.

“We have a pretty small window of [air refueling] space and they have to stay pretty precise in the window,” said Hauck.

Meanwhile, the tanker pilots, sitting over 100 ft from their own boom operator, are making sure the aircraft keeps a steady speed and stays as stable as possible for the refuel.

Refueling in itself is challenging and Wednesday’s flight was during the day, with clear skies and little turbulence. At night, in weather, or both and the operation gets more grueling.

“You lose a lot of depth perception at night which is why it’s so hard,” said Hauck. “Depending on the lunar illumination it can be tough as well and trying to make a precision contact without running into the receiver.”

Through the challenges, the tankers support the mission at Ellsworth AFB the Air Force as a whole.

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