Watch: Grissom pilots refuel Thunderbirds ahead of September air show

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PERU, Ind — Less than three weeks before the Air Force Thunderbirds air show at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Grissom pilots flew a refueling mission Monday for elite F-16 pilots.

“The Thunderbirds, they’re the premier aerial demonstration team of the Air Force,” said Grissom Public Affairs Director Douglas Hays. “So nobody does it better in the Air Force than they do.”

Grissom Air Reserve Base is home to the 434th Air Refueling Wing. The Wing Commander, Colonel Larry Shaw, and his crew started the morning with a 7 a.m. mission briefing and a check of the weather conditions. The refueling mission involved meeting up with the Thunderbirds on their way to an upcoming air show in New Jersey.

“So we’re going to go to Iowa and pick them up, and drop them off in Pennsylvania so they can continue to Atlantic City,” Colonel Shaw said.

Flying the mission meant getting into the cockpit of an aircraft Shaw is very familiar with, a KC-135R Stratotanker. Shaw has been flying them for 30 years.

“Built back in the 50s and 60s for one reason and one reason only: to refuel the B-52s during the cold war,” Shaw said.

A KC-135 weighs approximately 120,000 pounds when it’s empty, Shaw said. But that weight can triple when it’s fully loaded with fuel.

Not long after a 9 a.m. takeoff, the refueling plane had company in the sky as seven F-16s approached to match speed and direction. The Thunderbirds maneuvered into formation on each side of the KC-135 as each pilot waited for their turn to refuel.

“They are literally three to four feet off our wing as their buddy is getting refueled,” Shaw said. “That is pretty neat to see.”

One by one, each F-16 smoothly moved to the rear of the KC-135, where the refueling boom was extended. The boom is positioned and steadied by a member of the refueling crew using hand controls. Master Sergeant Ken Knight smiled while working in what is called a “boom tube.” The boom tube allows an operator to lay on their stomach and operate the boom controls while watching out several rear windows.  

Knight calls it the best job in the world.

At 24,000 feet and roughly 520 miles per hour, the F-16 pilots seemed to slowly inch forward until their fuel tank nozzles made contact with the extended fueling boom.  

“They make it look easy, but it’s not,” Hays said. “Basically, you have two aircraft that are touching each other in mid-flight. And we do this whether it’s daylight, nighttime, good weather, bad weather.”

Each Thunderbird pilot only needed a couple minutes to fill their fuel tanks. During that time, they exchanged friendly chats over the radio with the 434th refueling crew.

After 30 years of refueling pilots, Shaw says he’s made friends that he’ll probably never meet face-to-face.

“You can hear their voice, you know that it’s the same individual,” Shaw said. “But you don’t know them personally, you know their voice.”

By the end of the mission, the 434th had off-loaded 40,000 pounds of fuel to the Thunderbirds before seeing them on their way to New Jersey. The entire mission from Peru to Iowa, to Pennsylvania and back to Peru took roughly 3 and a half hours.

“And it still, to this day, is amazing for me to do this,” Shaw said.

“We’re happy to be able to provide them fuel as they go from one air show to the next,” Hays said. “Then they’ll be coming back to Grissom September 7th and 8th for our air show.”

The Grissom Air & Space Expo will be the first air show at Grissom Air Reserve Base since 2003. Attendance and parking at the show are free. You can read more about the upcoming show on the Grissom Air Reserve Base’s website.

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