Things that go bump in the dark
I’ve never been an aficionado of night flying. You can stumble into weather you would normally avoid in the daytime and it’s often more difficult to do things that are routine during the day. Additionally, you always hear noises that never seem to occur during daylight. For instance, air-to-air refueling (AAR), which is challenging in the daytime, requires flying at 300 knots while close to another aircraft filled with fuel, and they intend to “pass some gas” to you—in the dark!
To put AAR into perspective, imagine you are driving down the interstate at 70 miles an hour when you notice there’s a gas station at the next exit. You check your gauge and note you’re nearly empty. However, instead of stopping at that gas station and filling up, you do something different.
You see a tanker truck ahead driving in the same direction and at the same speed as you. You contact its driver and he clears you to get closer and continue driving in a “holding” position until you can speak with his station attendant. When the attendant calls to let you know it’s your turn, you drive to a “pre-refueling” position behind the tanker. Once stabilized there, the attendant clears you to a “refueling” position below a boom sitting at the end of the tanker with a hose protruding from it. You now drive close enough to allow the attendant to reel out that hose and connect it to your car’s fuel tank. Latches on your car trap the hose, allowing the attendant to refuel you. Note, you never slowed down during this procedure!
Now, let me put some of those terms I used above into those used when conducting AAR. The tanker trucks we use are aerial tankers such as the KC-135, KC-10, or the KC-46. However, we don’t have to find them; we have a planned rendezvous point, called an aerial refueling track, where we join up with them. After joining up, we fly on the tanker’s wing in an observation position waiting for our turn. While there, we open the refueling door exposing our refueling receptacle. When the attendant (the boom operator, AKA “the boomer”) clears us for refueling, we move from the observation position to the pre-contact position, which is one to two ship-lengths behind and slightly below the boom.
Once there, we stabilize in relation to the tanker. The boomer then clears us to the contact position and we move forward and stabilize in a position directly under the boom. The boomer then reels out some hose and, using winglets on the boom, literally flies it to plug the hose into our refueling receptacle. Contact occurs when the latches on our refueling receptacle clamp onto the hose, allowing the boomer to start pumping fuel.
While taking gas, we’re on a hot mic with the boomer, which allows him to give corrections to keep us in position. A stripe on the tanker’s centerline helps us remain aligned while director lights on the belly of the tanker show if we are in position. That is, they direct which way to move: up or down, forward or aft. If we don’t take the hint from the director lights, the boomer gives verbal directions—“forward five” or “up three” —telling us to move forward five feet or up three. When in the correct position, a green Captain’s bar lights up in the center of each of the director lights.
The boomer tells you how much fuel you took when you top-off. If not filling up, he tells you when you have received your planned offload. At that time, either you or the boomer can push a button to disconnect the hose. Although it might sound difficult, AAR is just another time when one flies in close formation. As you might imagine, it can be more challenging at night.
I conducted my first AAR on a daytime mission in an A-10 and, since it is a single-seat aircraft, I was on my own. However, we were extensively briefed on the procedure before we launched with an instructor pilot (IP) leading three students. From his airplane, the IP made the required radio calls as he led us through the tanker rejoin and then demonstrated the observation, pre-contact, and contact positions. He then coached each of us as we made our initial hook-ups. The briefing and our preparation paid off; the three of us took our planned offload without any problems.
By the way, AAR in an A-10 has a unique feature. The refueling receptacle is positioned in front of the canopy and, as you sit in the cockpit, it’s below your waist. If a boomer is aggressive, you get the impression the hose is going to crash into you.
While doing night AAR out of Myrtle Beach AFB, SC, a squadron mate had to abort and make an emergency recovery after the boomer crashed the hose into his front windscreen. The thick glass only cracked, but it made for a few tense moments as he flew home and landed.
A few weeks after my first AAR, I flew my first night AAR sortie, again in an A-10. It was also thoroughly briefed and an IP once again led three students. It was challenging because the tanker’s position lights were dimmed while its rotating beacon and strobes were off (thank goodness!). However, the city lights of Tucson, AZ, which was south of our refueling track, did provide some illumination. We quickly realized the director lights played a more important role at night as there were few other clues regarding your position under the tanker.
That night refueling was the first of many I have flown, but a night AAR sortie that stands out for me happened when I commanded the 61st fighter squadron, the “Top Dawgs.” At the time, it was an F-16 training squadron at MacDill AFB in Tampa, FL; it’s currently at Luke AFB in Phoenix, AZ, training pilots to fly the F-35.
On this particular mission, I was leading two F-16Bs on a night training sortie with another IP and me in the back seats of our respective aircraft and student pilots occupying our front seats. The mission was to instruct night AAR on the way to the gunnery range, where we would instruct night weapons delivery.
We rendezvoused with the tanker shortly after takeoff. Another flight of two F-16s was still on the tanker when we arrived, so we went to the observation position on the wing opposite from them until they departed.
Before we started our refueling, the boomer advised they were experiencing some issues. He told us the boom was dropping a little when the hose was disconnected from the refueling receptacle. I quickly checked with the lead of the previous flight who stated they hadn’t experienced any problems.
With that in mind, I took control from the student and demonstrated a dry hook-up, allowing him to observe all the visual references at the pre-contact and contact positions. When I disconnected, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, so I returned to the observation position and the IP in the #2 airplane replicated what I had done for his student, thus giving my student another chance to observe the procedure. It was then my student’s turn on the boom and he showed he was a quick study by hooking up on his first try.
After getting our offload, the student disconnected from the boom and we immediately heard a loud thump behind me. I flinched and scanned the engine instruments to make certain everything was working properly. Everything appeared OK, but I took control of the airplane and moved back to the observation position and asked the other IP to look me over. He moved to where he was looking down on the top of my plane and radioed, “Looks OK boss.” After #2 got their offload, we headed to the range and dropped our bombs.
We returned to MacDill and practiced night landings until I called, “Uncle!” After parking, the student and I walked into the line shack and I informed maintenance they had a code-1 jet. However, my crew chief unexpectedly showed up and said, “Boss, you need to see this.”
I walked back out to the airplane with him, where he pointed to another crew chief sitting on the spine of the airplane while working on something behind the canopy. When the second crew chief climbed down, he handed me the blade antenna that sat immediately behind the cockpit, only a few feet behind my seat. It was bent over nearly 90 degrees and I could see it had been struck by something metallic; I reckoned the boom was the culprit and its condition explained the thump we heard earlier.
I asked, “You’re replacing this, right?” He assured me they already had another one on the way. I told him I was keeping the broken one.
The next day, I had that antenna mounted on a plaque with our squadron patch beside it. Underneath I placed a diagram (above) showing where the antenna had been on the airplane with a large Me! pointing to my seat in the rear cockpit. On a brass plate at the bottom, I had inscribed, “Night flying! Who said it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?” I sent it to the commander of the refueling squadron, but I never received a reply—some people have no sense of humor!