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Baby booms train to fly critical refueling missions

by Airman Jose Climaco
Thunderbolt staff writer

A MacDill KC-135 refuels a B-2 Spirit bomber over Missouri during an orientation flight. Boom operators train for months to become familiar refueling all of the Air Force's aircraft.

Photo by Airman Jose Climaco

The path to flying crucial refueling missions in the Air Force is paved with hard work and dedication during training for new boom operators, who are responsible for in-flight refueling of aircraft aboard KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender tankers.

Baby booms, as they're affectionately called by experienced operators at the 91st Refueling Squadron, don't start flying air refueling missions as soon as they arrive at MacDill. They are required to undergo Mission Qualification Training before flying air refueling missions and deploying.

The 91st ARS has eight baby booms who are training to be mission qualified. That's unusual, as there are usually only one or two. The high number of baby booms is because Air Mobility Command increased the crew ratio to meet the high ops tempo, said Senior Airman Brandy Coyle, 91st ARS boom operator instructor.

Each baby boom is allotted 120 days for MQT. In that time they'll fly a minimum of four flights to include aircraft equipped with standard receptacles, as well as probes. They also will refuel fighters during the day and night, heavy receivers (KC-10, C-5, C-17, B-2) day and night, train for radio silent refueling and radio silent breakaways. Air refueling during the day must be completed before any night training can be accomplished.

Due to specific requirements and the inability to control which aircraft will be refueled, some Airmen have 60-day waivers to extend their training, said Airman Coyle.

Trying to get all the receivers required can be challenging, especially getting specific ones and having them at day and night. "It's all about the receivers," Airman Coyle added.

The focus during MQT is for baby booms to get used to different receivers and to know why they do each task on their checklist. In technical school, they don't have the opportunity see a variety of aircraft and they go through their checklist without knowing why each task must completed, said Airman Coyle.

A big difference baby booms see during MQT at MacDill when compared to tech school is refueling fighters. They tend to get excited when refueling fighters because they get a close look at the aircraft, pilot and weapons, the instructor said.

Airman 1st Class Andrew Reichard, 91st ARS boom operator, said his favorite receivers are the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon.

"The pilots I get are funny and cool to talk to sometimes over the radio; and when you're done refueling them, they give a thumbs up, take a dive and disappear. When a pilot says 'thank you,' something really big has been accomplished," said Airman Reichard.

It's important to have baby booms flying as soon as they arrive to their unit. Sometimes they haven't flown in three months and are rusty when they begin MQT because they go through the First Term Airman Center, sometimes take leave after tech school and have ground training before MQT. Their skills return very quickly once they're flying again, said Airman Coyle.

MQT challenges Airmen by involving a great deal of studying manuals. During MQT, baby booms don't have to worry about completing their Career Development Courses. They would only confuse the Airmen because their CDCs cover KC-10 Extenders, the Air Force's other tanker, which baby booms aren't familiar with, said Airman Coyle.

Airman Reichard, who is currently in MQT, said the most challenging part of MQT is performing air refueling wearing protective chemical gear because it gets hot and uncomfortable. It's especially difficult at night when everything is dark, Airman Reichard added.

Due to the challenge in training and the critical mission they'll be performing, Airmen are hard on themselves. Airman Coyle warns other Airmen they must always focus on what's happening at that moment and not let something snowball into a situation where they become unaware or confused about what's happening.

Airman Reichard said he stays focused by going over radio call times and receiver times in his head because situational awareness is critical during contact.

"It takes a great amount of focus back there," he added, referring to the back of a KC-135, where the boomer performs his primary mission of refueling.

When difficulties arise, Airmen can always count on instructors to answer their questions and give helpful information, said Airman Reichard.

Difficulties during MQT are completely on an individual basis, but students are doing a good job and "want to get out there," said Airman Coyle.

MQT is a learning experience for baby booms, which is very critical before they refuel aircraft.




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