Adventures at 20,000 feet
It was the crack of dawn on a Tuesday and I had to jump out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that I was on the road by 5:15. Today was going to be the day that I would travel to Truax National Air Guard 115th Fighter Wing base in Madison. It would be a rare opportunity for a civilian to board an Airforce tanker as a passenger for one of the regular refueling missions at 20,000 feet for F-16’s and F-18 fighter jets. This amazing adventure was made possible through ESGR or Employee Support of the Guard and Reserves.
My opportunity to fly this mission was sponsored by Lt. Colonel Scott Lieburn ,our Moraine Park Technical College Dean of Students.
Upon my arrival at Truax, I zigzagged my car though various security barriers to reach the main gate where I was met by heavily armed security who promptly secured my picture ID and checked my name of the list of invited guests for the flight. Once cleared I proceeded to the mess hall for breakfast and speeches from members of ESGR and the base brass including General Ebben.
The room had a good mixed crowd of employers as well as the active duty personnel who were employed by the same organization. I, like others who were there, were recognized for our steadfast commitment to our service men and women in the workplace. Once the speeches and recognitions were over names were called off to be escorted to another location in the building.
My name was called off with the many others and I looked quizzically at those around me wondering if I forgot to fill out some of the forms they gave us as we entered the mess hall. Our group was led off to an adjacent room with the service staff. There we were briefed on security clearance as well as the protocol for the refueling flight to follow.
After a short time of instruction we were loaded on a bus and driving to the tarmac next to the Boeing 707 tanker refueling jet. Once all of us were aboard we strapped into the suspension seats along the bulkhead of the plane and took off for the mission. The staff encouraged all of us to take lots of pictures which we would share afterwards on a website.
I purposely brought one of my cameras along to capture as much of the action as possible. Once the plane was at cruising altitude we were allowed to get up and mill about the plane. Everyone got a chance to go into the cockpit and chat with the service personnel as well as each other.
In the back of the plane was the control site for the refueling boom which is a winged protrusion out the back of the plane with an extended tube with a connection basket on the end. We could see the action by crawling down on either side of the tail section, laying on our bellies and looking out rear facing windows. The boom refueling operator laid on his belly between controlling the direction of the refueling tube with various controls and a joy stick.
In short order we noted the F-16’s and F-18’s line up for fuel. They would fly in and hover on wingtips of our 707 and individually float back taking turns at the rear of the plane for refueling. The whole process transferring hundreds of gallons took only a few minutes for each fighter plane. Once a group was refueled they would drown down below our plane lining up side by side, slant their wings in unison and slide off into the cloud cover as if to say “thanks a lot, and goodbye”.
Our tanker refueled two separate flights of fighters before we (after about two hours) navigated our way back to home base. Once on the ground we were encouraged to take more pictures before boarding our bus back to the mess hall where we received parting thanks from the staff and crew as well as our beautifully framed certificates of support for the Guard and Reserves.
Ours is proudly displayed on our FDL campus just outside our Veteran’s service office. You can learn more about our Veterans’ services by visiting morainepark.edu/veterans.
Even though it was an early day the weather was perfect as well as the flight. It was a fascinating opportunity I would never been able to enjoy had it not been for the reciprocal support received by our employed service personnel at MPTC. Thank you Col. Lieburn!
What a great opportunity and experience! Great photos too.