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by Pat Dooris

Bio | Email | Follow: @PatDoorisKGW

Posted on August 1, 2006 at 6:19 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:40 PM


TV people are often late to events.

Military people are often early.

When the Portland Air guard invites us to events...they invite us early to protect us from ourselves.

That's how photographer KC Nolen and I ended up at the gate to the airbase at six am this morning to get on a plane that left at eight.

We ended up waiting in the jet on the edge of the runway for five minutes because the pilots were TOO early. Five minutes we'll never get back.

But I digress.

Our mission today was telling the story of the last training flight for the KC 135 air refueling jets based in Portland.

The 8 huge jets are being split up, with half sent to California, the others sent to Oklahoma.

Its amazing to walk up next to these jets.

They're the military version of the Boeing 707. Check out these stats....wingspan 130 wide, length: 136 feet, height: 41 feet, speed: 530 miles an hour, ceiling 50,000 feet, range 1,500 miles. And MAXIMUM take off weight...322,500 pounds.

Now, I don't know about you, but I think its a miracle anything that big gets off the ground at all!

Before the flight, the crew invited us up into the cabin of the huge jet. They explained the escape routes should the thing catch on fire before we took off. A couple escapes involved the typical side door that you find on a commercial airliner. The surprise came when they explained how to get to a ladder behind the pilot seat and climb down a hole in the floor to the ground. The other option is out through the windows in front of pilot. Our guide admitted they are small windows but assured us we'd have no trouble getting through them to escape a fire.

Probably right.

As the jet took off the crew pointed to hot coffee steaming in a silver holder...and a standard airline style bathroom..a luxury for military planes.

Inside the jet you see two colors...gray floors and ceilings...and red nylon webbing chairs along either side of the fuselage. They're not comfortable, but I don't think that's the point here. This is a flying gas tank. The floor is plywood. Four fuel compartments sit below our feet. The wings each have three compartments for fuel. No smoking allowed, thank you. Some of the guys opt for chew.

An hour later, over Northern California, we rendezvous with a huge tanker from Travis Air force base. The jet is a KC 10.

Our crew members move to the back of the KC 135 to operate the boom and give the other tanker gas.

Its an amazing operation that seems stranger than the jets being in the air.

The boom operator ducks down below the floor in the back of the plane to a special compartment about four feet below.
Its almost like a kid's fort. There are three couch type structures...without arms...each with a view out three windows in the back of the plane. The middle position has a chin rest and two joy sticks as if we're playing a video game.

Hanging down below the jet...a boom with a small v--shaped wing that helps the boom remain stable.

The joy sticks control the boom. It can move up and down and side to side. The probe inside the boom can extend out twenty feet.

As the KC-10 approaches I find myself holding my breath. It doesn't seem right to have such a big jet flying just 30 feet below and behind us. I can see the pilots face clearly as he sits, focused on flying his jet close to the refueling boom. He edges in closer...then drifts a tad to one side...closer still..up a back to the other side.

The KC-10 is gray with a black circle on the very front. The top has a black, oval shaped target leading to a silver hole in the ceiling. Its the gas nozzle.
As the pilot nudges his jet closer, our boom operator extends the boom and flicks a switch as the fuel tank and boom connect.

If this was not a drill, real jet fuel would flow from our jet to the KC10.

Since its a drill, both sides pretend.

Still...its a real challenge.

Imagine driving down the highway with a fuel truck next to your car...the truck operator and you jostle to get your car into a position where he can shove a hose into your tank and fill you up.

Maybe we can get the air force to design something for would be a time saver....

The big jet signals its ready to break away and does so safely.

Another pilot takes the controls and the jet edges closer to the boom again.

Scenes like this play out in the skies above us night and day.

Most of us never realize its happening.

But lots of us notice the big jets lumbering into the sky as they leave Portland International for such training missions. Beginning August 5th, the training will continue, but the big jets will be gone from Portland, moved to other parts of the country where the military thinks they are more efficiently used.