FEATURE: Refueling the Thunderbirds

Most people probably think that covering an airshow is a pretty cushy gig, but they would be surprised at some of the grueling extras one can be asked to do. For example, when I was talking to the head of public affairs at Tinker Air Force Base, Jerry Bryza, prior to their Star Spangled Salute airshow, he informed me that they were looking for a photographer willing to go on a KC-135 mission to photograph the Thunderbirds being refueled en route to Tinker. After agonizing over the decision for almost a nano-second, I may have even let him finish the sentence before accepting the offer. So, on Thursday morning before the airshow I was met at the main gate of Tinker Air Force Base and taken to the plane.

For those unfamiliar with the KC-135 Stratotanker, it is a four-engine tanker and transport aircraft based on the same original airframe as the Boeing 707 airliner. It has been the primary refueling aircraft for the Air Force since it entered service 60 years ago. The last one was produced in 1965 so even the most recent ones are pretty old, but as you can see the interior is quite opulent.

Our “stewardess” for the flight was Chief Master Sgt. Phil Brand, seen here giving preflight instructions to Phil Tinker, grandson of Major General Clarence L. Tinker, the first Native American Major General after whom the base is named, and Helen Welch. Helen, a native of Malaysia just qualified to become a United States citizen. Although the actual ceremony has to be done by a federal judge, she was “sworn in” by Thunderbirds flight leader Lt. Col. Jason Heard, callsign “Shifty”, after the team had refueled and formed up right behind the tanker. Col. Heard asked me later what she thought of the ceremony and seemed genuinely pleased when I told him I thought he had “made her decade”. He even gave me a small US flag to give to her.

Even though we had been given a rendezvous time earlier, several of us still eagerly scanned the skies behind and below us during the flight. Suddenly, there was the familiar paint scheme of a Thunderbird Fighting Falcon F-16. The airplane is very familiar, but the angles at which I got to view it for the next couple of hours were incredible. This is flight leader Lt. Col. Jason Heard as he approaches the lowered the boom to start the refueling process.

The boom operator said that the Thunderbirds were, as expected, among the very best at air to air refueling. He added that there was another select group who were also very adept at accurate approaches and holding station well. According to the Boomer, B-2 Spirit pilots were also extremely good. Having finished refueling, Lt. Col. Heard dives away from the tanker. You can see him scanning the sky around as he pulls away.

Once the refueling and swearing in ceremony were completed, the team joined on the tanker and escorted us the rest of the way to Tinker Air Force Base. While the window looking aft from the boomers position is almost crystal-clear, I think the side windows on this particular plane may have been original equipment. They were really scratched up which made shooting to the side a bit of a challenge. When a clear spot happened to coincide with the position of the F-16s, it was a pretty incredible sight.

I thought I’d missed any chance of a nice formation shot when I agreed that a videographer should record the swearing in. By the time I could get a good shot, they were breaking up. Later, I was in the left observer’s couch when Chief Brand asked if I wanted to lie in the Boomer’s couch.

I settled in to see that the team was starting to form up behind us again for the parade over Oklahoma City as we approached Tinker. I had never seen the Thunderbirds do a 7 ship formation formation before, but #8 Advance Pilot/Narrator Erik Gonsalves joined up for this grand entry into Oklahoma City.

In case you were wondering if there is a Thunderbird #7, yes there is. This is Operations Officer Lt. Col Kevin Walsh taking off for a VIP flight later that afternoon in the 2 seater version of the F-16. That gray in the background is a severe thunderstorm that was rapidly approaching as they took off. The VIP for this flight is Miss Oklahoma, Sarah Klein, in the back seat, perhaps wondering if this was such a good idea.

Sarah was all smiles as the plane came to a halt at the end of her ride. Col Walsh said She had been a real trooper and had handled 8.2 Gs well. She smiled and quietly added, “I threw up twice”.


Tim Passmore is a Vietnam-era veteran of the US Air Force and a lifelong aviation enthusiast. He also covers auto racing and musical events.