Dan Shafer

Up in the air with the 128th Air Refueling Wing

TCD was aboard a KC-135R Stratotanker with the 128th Air Refueling Wing to witness a mid-air refueling of a B-2 Stealth Bomber. Photo gallery by Lacy Landre.

By - May 16th, 2012 04:00 am
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Outside of the K-135R Stratotanker at the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee. (Photo: Lacy Landre)

“The B-2 Spirit is a multi-role bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. A dramatic leap forward in technology, the bomber represents a major milestone in the U.S. bomber modernization program. The B-2 brings massive firepower to bear, in a short time, anywhere on the globe through previously impenetrable defenses,” reads the U.S. Air Force Fact Sheet passed out to members of the media during the orientation for the Media Flight on Wednesday, May 9 at the 128th Air Refueling Wing at 1919 E. Grange Ave. in Milwaukee.

A B-2 Stealth Bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base, MO. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy M. Wilson (click for full size image)

A few short hours after receiving this sheet, photographer Lacy Landre and I were in a KC-135R Stratotanker headed toward the airspace between Missouri and Colorado to witness a mid-air refueling of a B-2 Spirit, what Sgt. Keith Dodge called “an aerial ballet.” The inside of the KC-135R we boarded that morning was like that out of a scene from a summer blockbuster—bound cables running overhead, equipment buckled in place, red mesh seats on either side of the craft and signs like “EMERGENCY RESCUE RADIO STOWAGE” and “RADIATION BARRIER” in every direction. The crew comprised pilots Mike Pauls and Lucas Daley and boom operators Lynda Matthews and Brad Love.

Boom Operator Lynda Matthews refueling a B-2 Spirit.

In the rear of the Stratotanker, an operator can lie flat and look down through a window roughly four feet wide to guide the refueling, once the B-2 is in position (see photo right).

We were in the air for nearly four hours, but the refueling took a total of 15 minutes. Pauls and Daly coordinated with Kansas City air traffic control and had to work more quickly than usual on this particular day. They told me the refueling didn’t go as smoothly as expected and they had a smaller window to complete the task. But they accomplished it with an ease that comes with years of training. If they hadn’t told me they were adjusting to unusual circumstances, I wouldn’t have known.

The 128th takes three refueling flights a day and refuels a B-2 about once a week. The B-2 can pose challenges for the crew, as sometimes the bomber is not visible until it’s 30-40 feet away. At times, the refueling takes place in the middle of the night, with lights to guide the way. Matthews said that depth perception is difficult at night. Matthews added that the crew has thus far avoided any serious challenges (such as the ones I imagined in my movie-saturated mind in the days preceding the flight).

(Photo: Staff Sgt. Jeremy M. Wilson, 128th ARW)

The flight anticipated Milwaukee Armed Forces Week, which began on Friday, May 11, and ends with the Annual Support the Troops Ride and Ceremony on Saturday, May 19. The ride begins at 9 a.m. at Hal’s Harley-Davidson, 1925 S. Moorland Rd., New Berlin, and ends with a ceremony at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee. The week also includes a local dining promotion, in which many Milwaukee-area restaurants offer discounts to all active, reserve and veteran personnel during lunch and dinner from Monday, May 14 – Friday, May 18.

The most impressive aspect of the trip was not the sight of a the B-2 decreasing its altitude and pulling away from the KC-135R. Instead, I was most impressed by the men and women of the 128th we accompanied on the flight.

Pilots Mike Pauls and Lucas Daley (Photo: Lacy Landre)

It was in moments of normalcy—making small talk, checking phone messages—amidst something so unbelievable that reminded me of how much respect our troops deserve. These men and women do extraordinary things every single day, and it’s just another part of their lives. I sat in the cockpit while we were somewhere over some indistinguishable Midwestern state—staring out on the horizon from 35,000 feet, in a situation unlike anything I’d experienced in my entire life. The crew was made normal weekday chit-chat, such as discussing whether or not to go to the upcomng Black Keys concert at the Bradley Center.

Boom Operator Brad Love. (Photo: Lacy Landre)

The presence of TV cameras and questioning reporters did not make for a “normal” day. So did the B-2. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Wilson said it was his first time seeing a B-2 refuel during the day, something that was echoed by many of the National Guard personnel on the day’s flight. Even that was not as remarkable as the individuals who make this their lives.

The slideshow below is by photographer Lacy Landre. You can find the full gallery on her flickr page.

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