EARS extends "gas can" tradition

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Amber Ashcraft
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
On Nov. 12, 1921, a "wing walker" named Wesley May transferred himself to a Curtiss JN-4 airplane from a Lincoln Standard in mid-flight with a can of fuel strapped to his back. He poured the fuel into the gas tank of the JN-4 and performed the first actual mid-air transfer of fuel in what was meant to be nothing more than a stunt. Little did he know his stunt would eventually become a cornerstone event enhancing the Air Force's unrivaled global strike and global mobility capabilities. 

Nowadays, fleets of large tankers, including the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extenders, use the Boeing "flying boom" to complete air-to-air refueling instead of using a gas can to transfer fuel. 

At Incirlik, the "gas can" mission falls on the shoulders of Airmen in the 90th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron; a deployed group comprised of 120 Air National Guardsmen who rotate with their home stations. 

"Aerial refueling is like a symphony," said Col. Steven Berryhill, a 90th EARS KC-135 pilot. "We're up there trying to keep the tanker's air speed, the boom operator in the back is calmly keeping the receiving aircraft in position for refueling and then the receiver is working pretty hard to stay in the directed envelope." 

In rain or shine, day or night, Airmen from the 90th EARS fly sorties to refuel C-17 and C-5 aircraft destined for Iraq and Afghanistan from the United States, Germany and even Spain. 

"We don't have to fly far to do what we have to," Colonel Berryhill said. "Incirlik is in the center of it all and the most used air track for refueling is the Black Sea."
A key component of the ongoing air refueling mission is the in-flight refueling specialist, or boom operator. The boom operator is the tanker pilot's eyes and ears at the rear of the aircraft. He is also responsible for safely connecting the boom to the receiving aircraft. 

"We just fly the tankers and keep them in air; we're basically bringing the boom operator to work every day," Colonel Berryhill said. "We can't do this mission without him." 

The receiving aircraft trusts the boom operator to fly the boom into position for the mid-air refueling. The receiver uses visual cues from antennas on the bottom of the tanker. The boomer also uses external lights directing them fore and aft. When the boom makes contact with the receptacle, the boomer uses a control stick to maneuver the boom in sync with the receiving aircraft while maintaining a safe distance. Throughout the whole time, the boom operator keeps in constant communication with pilots in both aircrafts. 

"It's my job to make sure things in-flight flow smoothly," said Senior Airman Mitchell Harwood, a 90th EARS boom operator. "Every mission is unique and offers a different experience." 

Airman Harwood uses each experience to maintain composure in any situation. 

"About a week ago, we were flying a mission at night," Colonel Berryhill said. "The weather was pretty terrible, but it didn't deter Airman Harwood from his job. He coached them into position and calmly reassured them with specific direction to keep the connection flowing. We all felt safe and confident with his direction." 

Though weather can sometimes be an annoying factor, refueling in the air is still safer and faster than ground refueling in a combat zone. 

Aerial refueling allows an aircraft to land and offload cargo quickly, getting them back in the air in record time. When air-refueled, the aircraft is exposed to a narrower window of being a sitting target and out of use that much longer. 

"We can off load 100,000 pounds of fuel in 25 minutes compared to the four hours it takes on the ground," Colonel Berryhill said. 

The air refueling mission is the keystone of the air bridge necessary for almost any military movement; a fact not lost on the Airmen of the 90th EARS. 

"I walk with confidence and pride in what I do," Airman Harwood said. "I'm lucky to be young and have this enormous responsibility, working with amazing people who put their trust in me to keep them safe. I love the Air Force and being a boom operator. If I could do this for the rest of my life, I would." 

No matter if an Airman is a guardsman, reservist or on active duty, the mission continues in different ways. The 90th EARS ensures mission success with people like Airman Harwood, continuing the tradition started nearly 90 years ago by wing walkers like Wesley May.