This 52-yr-old giant mid-air refueller is still going strong

Aero India 2015: Seasoned fighter jets, HAL's aerobatic team steal the show on third day

This 52-yr-old giant mid-air refueller is still going strong

For nine and half hours, two F-16 fighter jets flew nonstop from the Japanese base in Kadena to the Yelahanka Air Base in Bengaluru.

The aircraft endured that long flight for one solid reason: The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. This giant refuelled the two jets four times en route and landed at Aero India 2015 to tell a story that is over 50 years old!

Commissioned in 1962, the mid-air refueller had taken part in all the major global conflicts involving American forces. Young co-pilot, Capt Alex Trana had come into the KC-135 barely three years ago. But in that short tenure, she had already endured hours of dramatic, often scary refuelling moments.

“It gets scary when the fighter jets come in close for the refuel. The distance could get as close as four to five metres!” she recalled to Deccan Herald aboard the aircraft.

Turbulence could make it worse. “We just cannot refuel if it is anything beyond light turbulence. The aircraft would go up and down. Most of the time, the autopilot is engaged to compensate for these disturbances,” she explained. Flying in conflict zones could multiply the challenges. Fortunately for Trana, despite taking part in zones as challenging as Afghanistan, the aircraft was yet to face enemy fire!
So, how does the refuelling actually happen. “When the receiver aircraft comes up, the boomer is pulled up and inserted into the receiver’s fuel hole. Fuel is then injected at 6,000 pounds per minute. It takes about five to eight minutes for smaller aircraft such as F-15 or F-16. Larger planes can take up to 10-15 minutes,” explained a maintenance engineer onboard.

Twelve years in the same aircraft had hardened the engineer’s experience.
“We can fly directly into a conflict area. We just go around stocked with the fuel, and the other aircraft come to us,” he pieced together those dramatic moments with ease. Weighing about 125,000 pounds without fuel and 320,000 fully loaded, the KC-135 is definitely huge. Besides, as another pilot reminded, it was not built for short takeoff and landing. “This aircraft needs at least a 7,000 feet long runway. Landing at the Yelahanka Air Base was both challenging and interesting,” said he.
Trana had another worry, something her learning curve would eventually overcome: Fuel leaks. She had heard about such nasty eventualities in another mid-air refueller. But her training had taught her what to do. 

“We just follow the emergency procedure check list. Basically, it is trying to put the fuel into things that it can go into and turning it off.”

The trigger would be the fuel indicator. Any humongous difference in the levels will have to get her and the entire KC-135 crew in hyper-alert mode!

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry