Josh Bixler recently had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hop into an F-16 and experience a mid-air refuelling routine with the Alabama Red Tails. No big deal. It’s not like any of us would be at all jealous or anything right?
How mid-air refuelling works
Refuelling a plane in mid-air from a tanker aircraft is a tricky business. It takes great skill and precision flying to pull it off. The technological marvel that makes In-Flight Refueling (IFR) happen is fascinating. Also referred to as Air-To-Air Refueling (AAR), it was first used during the 1920s. A cartoon from Punch Magazine in 1909 poked fun at the idea of refuelling in the air, but little did they know that it would become a standard practice for air forces all around the world one day.
This is an image of the first successful mid-air refuelling in 1923. Based on the development of Alexander P. de Seversky, the higher aircraft ran a hose down to the lower aircraft. Fuel was pulled from the tanker aircraft’s handheld fuel tank by no more than good old gravity. It does have its functional uses even if we do have a love-hate relationship with it!
Nowadays, there are two standard systems for aerial refuelling. These are the Flying Boom and the Probe-and-Droge systems.
Boeing was the first company to develop the boom system for Strategic Air Command. It was envisioned in the 1940s as an alternative to flexible hoses that could deliver less fuel at a slower rate. Below is an example of a flexible hose between two USAF bombers.
Many of these booms have movable control surfaces on them that can accurately control the direction of the boom whilst stabilising it. This makes it a whole lot easier for the pilot of the receiver aircraft to get lined up, as you can probably imagine. The boom is attached to the rear of the tanker aircraft and has an operator who controls the movement of the device. The fuel pipe has a nozzle with a movable ball joint which, combined with a gimbalized mechanism, allows the boom to move with the recipient aircraft. Its pretty neat! When the nozzle is connected to the lower airplane, it locks allowing the fuel to begin flowing.
The pilot of the recipient aircraft always has to remain flying the aircraft whilst the two nozzles are locked in place. They are required to control the plane in a flight ‘envelope’ within the boom’s tolerance of movement. Failing to do this may end in a mid-air collision, of which there have been many unfortunate instances of accidents.
About the ‘tanker’ aircraft
The tanker that Josh’s F-16 refuelled from is a KC-135. It is a part of the 117th refuelling wing that helped make shooting the video possible. The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker is a dedicated refuelling Aircraft currently used by four air forces around the world. It was introduced in 1957, which makes it pretty darn old for an airplane still in service! Sometimes the older designs just keep on going. Interestingly, one variant of the Stratotanker, the KC-135Q, was modified to carry the special mix of jet fuel known as JP-7 that was needed by the SR-71 Blackbird.
Originally designed for bombers, the KC-135 was quickly adapted to service tactical fighters operating in the Vietnam theatre of war during the 1960s. It was introduced to the Air National Guard squadrons in the early 1990s. As you can see by our video, it’s still going strong with squadrons such as the 187th Fighter Wing who Josh flew with in one of their F-16s.
Highlights from the flight
Because you’ve made it this far in the article, here’s a sneaky hidden extra video we made of the take off and landing in both the F-16 and KC-135 without any music, just so you can appreciate the sounds associated with this special moment for the FT crew: roaring engines, radio chatter and Josh saying ‘holy cow!’
We hope you enjoyed this article and got something from it. It was a privilege working with the USAF to bring you this content and we look forward to hearing your response! Leave us a comment if you’d like and let us know what you’d like to see in the future.
Article written by James Whomsley