A tanker aircraft and a fighter jet fly across the sky. They slowly grow closer to each other, while from the ground, it may look as if they are about to crash. Just as we think we'll watch an aerial accident, the aircraft connect and start the aerial refueling process. Who is in charge of executing the mission and making the process as safe as possible?
A tanker aircraft and a fighter aircraft fly across the sky. They grow closer to each other in speeds of 500 km/h (310.6 mph). It looks like they are about to crash at any second. Just as we think we are about to witness a horrible aerial accident, the aircraft connect and start the aerial refueling process. Who is in charge of executing the mission and making the process as safe as possible?
Critical Operational Capability
In the 1980s, the IAF was in need of purchasing a tanker aircraft from the U.S Air Force. At that time, due to the aircraft's high strategic edge, the USAF refused to sell it. The IAF was not ready to give up on this critical operational capability, and so the IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) received the task of developing an Israeli tanker aircraft.
The aircraft was just as advanced as his American counterpart. The IAF developed the Aerial Refueling Capability and by that created a new role in the "Re'em" (Boeing 707) aircrew - "Boom" Operator.
Who is the Boom Operator?
Since the Boeing 707 is a very large aircraft, it requires many crewmembers. Two pilots, a Weapon Systems Operator and a Flight Engineer, pilot the aircraft. Aerial refueling is one of the countless missions of the aircraft. During aerial refueling missions, the "Boom" Operator joins as a new crewmember.
The "Boomer" ("Boom" Operator) is a Flight Engineer and aircrew member with seniority and years of experience. His role is to navigate the "Boom" (a long pipe the fuel flows into) and connect it to the fighter aircraft that needs refueling.
Fighter pilots also undergo aerial refueling training. They learn how to approach the refueling aircraft, how to communicate with the "Boom" Operator, how to start the refueling process, as well as try to understand the mission from the "boom" operator's perspective. "We train alongside the 'Boom' Operators and watch them execute the aerial refueling mission. That's how we learn what they needs us to do in real-time", explains Lt. A, a fighter pilot in Aerial Refueling training. "It's important for both the pilot and the Boomer to fully understand the mission so they can execute it properly".
The Boomers and pilots go through a unique training process to prepare them for the mission. That made me wonder what is so complex about Aerial Refueling. Lt. A and Maj. Y, Commander of the Flight Engineers and Boom Operators Department in squadron 120, describe the mission as a 'controlled crash'. "I'm flying just a few meters away from a huge tanker aircraft. The aircraft has a large impact over the airflow. That makes it difficult to keep the plane stable", shares Lt. A. "When they explain to you how to execute the mission, they describe it as crashing into another plane in midair. That sounds terrifying and disturbing, but eventually what happens is that two aircraft connect through a tube that transfers fuel".
When the fighter aircraft arrives at the access point, that is located several meters below the tanker aircraft, the Boomer starts to move the "Boom" closer to establish a connection. It is important for both of the aircraft to remain stable, this complex scenario can be broken at any given moment.
"Unpredictable movement of the fighter aircraft, weather changes and unpredictable movements of the tanker aircraft can all lead to a safety event", mentions Maj. Y. The Boomer must be very responsible and act in restraint. "It's important for the Boomer to be someone who knows when to take a step back and restrain him or her self when necessary", explains Maj. Y. "The need of connecting the Boom as fast as possible without taking into consideration the safety state is exactly what can lead to the next safety event".
Anywhere In the World
"In an aircraft that his main mission is to refuel, it's a great responsibility to be the aircrew member responsible for executing the mission", shares Maj. Y. There is only one Boomer in every aircraft who acts alone. "The transition from working in a group environment to a job where you sit by yourself and work alone, is challenging", clarifies Maj. Y.
"The Boomer needs to guide and manage me throughout the refueling process", explains Lt. A. "Therefore, he needs to have a strong ability to communicate, great interpersonal relations and even instructional capabilities"
The refueling mission is very complicated and tense, and so by the end of it, everyone involved feels a sense of relief. "In the end, you feel great satisfaction. We managed to refuel and did it together", smiles Lt. A. "It's very thrilling", shares Maj. Y. "There is something exciting in connecting the aircraft in the dark and under pressure, while knowing the aircraft on the other side of the 'Boom' counts on you to execute your mission successfully, anywhere in the world".