with the 108th Air Refueling Wing
On Wednesday December 5, 2001, five members of the National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office in Mt. Holly, New Jersey were invited to fly with the 108th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) of the New Jersey Air National Guard, based at McGuire AFB.
Bob Wanton, outreach program leader for NWS Mt. Holly, was instrumental in arranging the flight through Captain Denise Waggoner, Community Leader/Public Affairs Officer. The flight was part of the Air National Guards’ Civic Leader Orientation Program*. Other members of the NWS Mt. Holly staff included Al Cope, Bob Stauber, John Quagliariello, and Jim Eberwine.
*”Civic Leader Orientation Flight” is the official designation of the program sponsored by the New Jersey Air National Guard. However, Fam-Flight (Familiarization Flight) is a designation that is known throughout the National Weather Service.
We arrived at the front gate at 8:30 am. After a thorough inspection by the military police, we were directed to the 108th and greeted by Capt. Waggoner. Accompanying Capt. Waggoner was Sargent Ed Brokhoff from the Air Weather Group. We were then taken into a conference room and introduced to Colonel Maioriano who welcomed us to the wing and proceeded to tell us a little bit about the mission. We were shown a video about the New Jersey Air National Guard, which is under the supervision of the Governor of New Jersey. Many of the people we met were reservists . The 108th Air Refueling Wing has an exemplary safety record. We were then taken into a very impressive state of the art operations center. We could view all of the missions and see exactly who would be flying them. Capt. Waggoner explained that the crew can interrogate the flight status board and “bid” on a particular mission before leaving home.
At 10:20 am we boarded our bus to the flight line passing several KC-135 Stratotankers. The KC-135 Stratotanker’s principal mission is air refueling and provides aerial refueling support to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft as well as aircraft of allied nations.
After some group pictures, we were taken on the customary walk-around of the aircraft by Sargent Frank McCarthy, one of the two boom operators assigned to our flight. Sgt. McCarthy showed us the boom attached to the underside of the aircraft that extends for another twenty feet and delivers the fuel load to the awaiting aircraft. “ ROCCO61" was the call sign of the particular mission we were going on, but the tail number of the aircraft was N63593. In addition, “Spirit of Hunterdon County” with the American flag wrapped around the State of New Jersey was colorfully emblazoned on the aircraft under the cockpit windows. Our flight crew consisted of two pilots and two boom operators.
It was time to board the aircraft. As with all military operations, safety is primary. We were given ear plugs, and instructed on the proper use of the oxygen bottle that would be part of our “wardrobe” during the mission. In the event the aircraft depressurized, we would then pull the green knob on the bottle draped over our shoulder, and continue breathing until we dropped below 18,000 feet. And since we were all weathermen, we all knew that to mean the 500MB level.
For those not familiar with the KC-135 Stratotanker, it is similar to The Boeing Company’s commercial 707 passenger plane. The KC-135 was deployed in 1956 and the Air National Guard has 222 in their inventory. Even at forty five years old, the aircraft is very dependable and has less than 15,000 hours flight time compared to some commercial jets that have 75-125,000 flight hours on them. We were riding in a “relatively” new aircraft by flying standards. The aircraft has a wingspan of 130 feet 10 inches, a length of 136 feet 3 inches, and a height of 41 feet 8 inches. It has a range of 1,500 miles with an operable ceiling of 50,000 feet and speed of 530 miles an hour at 30,000 feet. Our flight today was going to be much lower.
As we were sitting on the tarmac, the flight crew pointed out another aircraft performing a low pass down the runway. This was the plane we were going to refuel. With the chocks pulled, we taxied out at 10:50 am. Jim Eberwine was assigned the jump seat since he was designated the photographer for our group, and Bob Stauber occupied the other jump seat and took the great digital pictures accompanying this report. A warm front had passed through in the early morning hours with just a trace of precipitation. High pressure was building in across the region and temperatures were spiraling upward toward the 70º mark. With southwesterlies prevailing, we taxied to the approach end of runway two-four with the wind at our nose for takeoff. Conditions were VFR and the surface winds were 250º at 7 knots with broken mid to upper level clouds. The pilot placed N63593 on the centerline and we were accelerating a short time later.
After rotating, we began a left turn and proceeded on an outbound heading of 105º straight offshore for a distance of 190 miles. Our destination “Whiskey 105 Alpha”(W105A). W105A is an area that is depicted on our NEXRAD WSR-88D radar display. The NEXRAD program is a tri-agency partnership, and we share the radar data with the United States Air Force at McGuire AFB.
The 108th is designated the Flying Tigers and the flight crew proudly displayed the insignia on their uniforms. The pilot-in-command today was Lt. Colonel Ryan Cecil, who also flies B737's for Continental Airlines, and the co-pilot, or right seat, was Lt. Colonel Mike Silver, a pilot with American Airlines who flies the stretch MD80. I was informed that we would be refueling a KC-10 Extender. By comparison, the KC-10 has a wingspan of 165 feet 5 inches, a length of 181 feet 7 inches, and a height of 58 feet. As you can see, we were going to refuel a much bigger aircraft. The KC-10 can carry 356,000 lbs of fuel, or almost twice as much as the Stratotanker and were placed into service in 1981. The active military is the only group that flies the 59 aircraft now in service.
As we passed over Long Beach Island, we climbed through some cumulus and stratocumulus clouds which topped off at 6,500 ft. We entered a deck of altocumulus clouds at 10,200 ft and broke out at 14,200 feet with clear skies above. We were now headed 091º climbing to an assigned altitude of 22,000 ft. I was told that refueling missions are generally preferred in the altitude range of the low 20s. After an hour, I glanced at the DME(Distance Measuring Equipment) and noticed we were now 107º degrees and 191 miles from McGuire AFB. We were looking for our contact.
At 11:50 am, the pilot made visual contact with the KC-10 Extender and it was time to join them on the “racetrack.” The racetrack, so named because of its elliptical shape, is the pattern flown by the two aircraft while refueling within W105A. “Team 32" was the designation given to the KC-10 on this mission and we were going to participate in a series of “engagements” as part of a practice exercise that would last for approximately an hour. By comparison, an F16 Fighter jet can be refueled in about two minutes. We were going to get several opportunities to see the bigger KC-10 make a series of approaches as we proceeded around the racetrack. On our outbound leg we were flying at 345 knots or nearly 400 miles an hour. While refueling at 22,000 ft around the racetrack we were flying at 295 knots or nearly 340 miles an hour. How does the pilot know if the other aircraft is in the proper position for refueling? Besides direct communication with the boom operator, there is a 1x1 inch amber light that illuminates when the boom is engaged. The light is located just to the right of the pilots right leg. The pilot of the KC-135 also enters an identifier tag of the aircraft being refueled and is aware of its position the entire time.
Each of the staff members were given a tremendous opportunity to go down into the “boom pod” and witness the refueling exercise. Sgt. Don Smith was the boom operator when we were taking turns. Sgt. Smith is also a police officer from Brick Township, New Jersey. Once you stepped down into the boom pod, you lay down in the prone position on a cushion and look out the window. The boom operator carefully maneuvered the boom into place using short, precise movements with a joy-stick. It was quite impressive to see TEAM32 come into view and slowly inch closer to a position that was only 30 feet away. We could see the faces, and even the insignias on the uniforms. This is as close as we’ll come to being a Thunderbird pilot who performs acrobatic maneuvers 18 inches apart.
While the two aircraft continued around the racetrack, and we took turns viewing the operation from the boom pod, we also had a chance to talk to the crew, and have lunch. And what a lunch it was! For starters there was a turkey and cheese hoagie, then Nachos, a brownie, nutra grain bar, fruit punch, butterscotch pudding, a banana, cookies, apple sauce, cheddar crackers and a soda. Most of us couldn’t eat the whole meal! Anyway, it was cold at times and then very warm, but we were told before hand to dress accordingly. The fuselage was very spacious and can accommodate 37 passengers. There were only five members from our office, three other gentlemen along for the experience, and two other military in addition to the crew. The aircraft is remarkably clean inside and very comfortable. We experienced occasional light chop, but for the most part the skies were crystal clear and the flight smooth.
At 12:45 pm it was time to turn for home. An absolutely exciting experience was coming to an end. On the inbound leg, John Quagliariello rode in the jump seat and became the office photographer, and Al Cope occupied the other jump seat. At one point the pilot showed us the south shore of Long Island, New York which happens to be near John’s home.
We crossed the coast and made a left turn near the Great Adventure Amusement Park in Jackson Township, Monmouth County. After several altitude readouts were broadcast by the automated voice, including our minimum altitude for a possible go-around, the wheels touched down at 1:30 pm. We came to a complete stop at 1:36 pm. “The Spirit of Hunterdon County” had returned and “ROCCO 61" was a complete success!
We assembled on the second floor lounge and were presented with certificates of appreciation. The certificate read, “I extend to you my personal thanks and sincere appreciation for your contribution, commitment and devotion of service to the New Jersey Air National Guard”. The certificates were presented to us by Colonel Wayne Thomas on behalf of S. Craig Widen, Col., NJANG 108th Air Refueling Wing Commander. But, it is the members of the Mt. Holly National Weather Service Office who are extremely grateful to the 108th for allowing us to come onboard, and share in a once in a lifetime experience. Sir, we thank you!!!!!
As we were departing, I stopped to ask the group what the price of a gallon of gas was at 22,000 feet. After a few seconds, Sgt. Ed Brokhoff replied, “sky high!”
Shortly after our trip, members of the 108th ARW were activated and deployed to southwest Asia. We wish them the very best of luck!
Jim Eberwine, Bob Wanton, Al Cope, Bob Stauber, and John Quagliariello.
Our special thanks to: S. Craig Widen, Colonel, NJANG 108th Air Refueling Wing Commander, Colonel Maioriano, Colonel Wayne Thomas, Captain Denise Waggoner, Sgt. Ed Brokhoff , Lt. Colonel Ryan Cecil, Lt. Colonel Mike Silver, Sgt. Frank McCarthy and Sgt. Don Smith.