ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN OFF OF LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK — One of the most crucial maneuvers to the American domination of the skies takes about 20 minutes to perform.
Flying south from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, the F-15 fighter jet draws steady underneath the airborne gas station known as a KC-10. The fighter jet is thirsty, and Master Sgt. Ray Cruz III of the New Jersey-based 514th Air Mobility Wing is ready to make sure it drinks its fill. Seated in the rear of the KC-10 tanker, 25,000 feet above the Atlantic’s clear blue water, Cruz waits until the F-15 is 10 feet away — “and that’s when we stick ‘em,” explains Cruz’s colleague, Tech Sgt. Angel Gomez, a reservist and student from Queens.
When the F-15 is within 10 feet, Cruz positions the boom, the stiff, thin Air Force version of a gas station pump, into the fighter jet’s receptacle, the Air Force version of a gas tank port. The process is a digitized, fly-by-wire one, but the dial on Cruz’s dashboard quickly ticks to the right, and numbers on an odometer spiral upward. The F-15, one of four waiting aloft at the gas station, needs 2,000 pounds of fuel, and it’ll take between 15 and 20 minutes for the dials on Cruz’s dashboard to register that he’s filled the tank. Welcome to the choreographed world of mid-air refueling.
It’s an important maneuver. If the Air Force didn’t have its refueling tankers, airmen wouldn’t be able to complete long, transcontinental missions without landing for gas like they were on a road trip. Troops would have to wait longer to get where they need to be, cargo would be delayed, and the entire logistics chain of the modern U.S. military would idle. That’s why the Air Force invited reporters and photographers to New York’s Kennedy Airport to hitch a ride on the tanker (well, that and the fact that next week begins the Air Force’s version of Fleet Week in New York).
When the F-15 has filled, it detaches from Cruz’s boom, flies off to the right of the tanker, and goes back to its mission — in this case, a standard reservist training exercise, but in a war zone, it would be something far more crucial.
As Cpt. Anthony Cannone knows. The co-pilot of this KC-10, the 29-year-old Cannon, an active-duty pilot for the past five and a half years, returned from his last Afghanistan deployment in January. Tanker deployments aren’t like regular Air Force deployments: They last only two months, and, in keeping with the entire point of mid-air refueling, aren’t tethered to a specific airbase. When I ask Cannone where he was stationed in Afghanistan, he seems momentarily confused by the question. That’s because he wasn’t really stationed in Afghanistan so much as he was stationed above it.
And for a long time. A typical flight leg on a tanker can last up to 12 hours, Cannone says, although his longest flight took 16. The KC-10 is prepared for a long airborne line at the pump: its maximum capacity is 330,000 pounds of jet fuel. (The Air Force doesn’t measure in gallons, but that works out to 50,000 gallons of gas.) It’s also younger and bigger than its Eisenhower-era cousin, the KC-135, which the Air Force is finally replacing after a decade-long contracting headache. This particular plane was born in September 1986, a twenty-something in the Air Force’s geriatric tanker fleet.
Not every mission the KC-10 flies is a refueling mission. Adapted from Boeing’s DC-10 civilian passenger plane, the tanker pulls double duty as a cargo plane, hauling military gear around the world. It’s a much more pleasant flight than the Air Force’s cavernous C-17s and C-130s: comparatively speaking, the KC-10 is quiet, snug and warm, even as it stretches 181 feet from nose to tail. “I love this plane,” Cannone says.
He’d better. By the end of the month, an “excited” Cannone will take one like it back to Afghanistan. At the rear of the plane and down below, Cruz, the boom operator, stares silently through his wraparound shades, waiting for the F-15 to slake its thirst before filling up the next one. After the plane lands, Cruz’s ice-grill breaks into a big smile as he peels off his unit patch and hands it to me as a souvenir.