NJJA Takes Flight
By NJJA Executive Director, Tom McBride
9:40am and we were “wheels up”. F-16 fighter jets were in northwestern Nebraska and hungry for fuel; our job was to get it to them. Oh, did I mention that in doing so we would be about 20,000 feet above the ground and moving about 450mph? I have flown countless hours in various aircrafts, from light to commercial to 18 years in helicopters, and this ride was one for the memory books. It all began at the suggestion of Senior Master Sergeant, Ryan Buck, a 17 year veteran of the Nebraska Air National Guard. He believed that since the Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association has an emphasis on youth, it would be great to introduce NJJA to the Nebraska Guard, learn its mission and purpose, and how today’s youth might be interested.
Lt. Colonel Raymond Romero was the contact person in applying to take this flight. The application process was lengthy; there was a medical questionnaire to complete, release forms to sign and then it all had to go through channels to include the 155th Refueling Wing. When notified that it was a “go”, I excitedly waited until September 2, 2015. We arrived at the Lincoln Air National Guard Base about 7:30am and were directed to Flight Operations. There, we received a briefing on the mission of the Guard and the 155th Refueling Wing in particular. A security briefing was given to us as well as a safety briefing. Following the completion of these briefings, the ten other orientation flight passengers joined me as we walked out to the aircraft and prepared to take flight.
Walking up to, and below, an RC-135 is humbling. The aircrafts are huge, four engine jets; the upgraded equivalent to a commercial Boeing 707. Nothing fancy, these birds are built for a purpose and are work horses. I was pleased to see how clean and well cared for this aircraft was. You could have ‘eaten off the floor’, a testament to the professionalism of both the full-time and weekend members of the 155th. Ear plugs in and seatbelts fastened, the sheer power of this bird was evident as it rolled down the runway. As we reached altitude our leader, Sergeant Cepek, told us we were free to walk around, visit the cockpit, look out the small porthole windows and visit the Tail Boom Operator’s position at the rear of the aircraft. Our crew of five took great care of us as we passed along viewing Nebraska’s beautiful landscape 20,000 feet below us. Then we received the word; the F-16s were within 20 miles of us. Everyone scrambled to a place to view them.
The F-16s appeared almost like hummingbirds to a feeder. They were initially nowhere to be seen and then, wow, they were there hovering just off our wingtip. It almost gave me a feeling of trepidation seeing fighter jets right off our wing and realizing the awesome potential those pilots and aircraft had. It was also a feeling of great pride that we had all of these great professionals on ‘our side’. Then the ballet began.
The Boom Operator told us how the aircraft being refueled uses position lights as they approach and how he then basically flies the refueling boom into the receptacle on the other aircraft. I simply cannot describe the scene and the movements as the two aircraft actually became one. I used the term ballet and that is exactly what it is, an airborne ballet. Looking down I could clearly see the F-16 pilot in an almost recumbent position in his aircraft looking at us and gently bringing his aircraft within feet of the bottom of ours. A connection made, they stayed together and then un-hooked. The F-16 gently backing away and then urging forward for another connection and more fuel. Each F-16 did this multiple times, as my understanding was they were required a certain number of refueling touches during a certain period of time.
When the first one was done, the little hummingbird dropped a bit, retreated and then was gone, reappearing a second later off the other wing of the 135. During this time the 2nd F-16 was patiently waiting about 20 feet off our other wing, waiting its turn, and just as quickly, vanishing, only to appear in place behind, and under, the 135 ready to get fueled. The same ballet took place while the 1st aircraft waited 20 feet off our other wing. During this time I have to tell you, I could not feel our RC-135 move. It was rock-solid in the air and became a stable, efficient gas station at 20,000 above sea level. Then finished with its fueling touches, the two F-16s joined up and like those hummingbirds, were gone in a flash.
There was no bravado nor did we receive anything from our crew like, “Aren’t we great!” They had a job, they did it well and professionally. They were glad to see the absolute joy in our faces, as we were able to see this all happen in person and in great detail. Then it was time to head home and leave us to the rest of our day, and our aircraft and crew taxied out to do this again and again this same day.
While the flight, and watching first hand a mid-air refueling, was spectacular, what struck me most were the men and women of the 155th who made this happen. I have used the word professional on several occasions and it simply cannot be overstated. These are true professionals in every sense of the word, whether a full-time technician or a Guard person taking part on weekends and summer camps. The 155th mission is global and tremendously important. These people come from every walk of life and leave on sometimes extended tours to accomplish their mission, which is critical to the larger mission. These are people that we can all be tremendously proud of and should appreciate constantly.
I think of the opportunities that entities, such as the 155th Refueling Wing, hold for young people in this state. It isn’t all pilots and flight crews when you see one of these magnificent birds take flight. There are aircraft mechanics, jet engines specialists, hydraulic specialists, fire fighters, maintenance carpenters, personnel clerks, security specialists, logistics personnel, intelligence specialist and a multitude of others, officers and enlisted, all working together to make sure the 155th is mission capable and ready to go. It offers training, travel, team work experience, tuition assistance, as well as helping provide guidance and structure to one’s life. It isn’t for everyone, but it is something very valuable for many, many young people. Careers that so many young people consider exploring as civilians, can also be pursued in the Guard.
This is not a recruiting attempt. My purpose was to provide a glimpse into something that was almost indescribable for me, and to acknowledge the important mission our National Guard provides everyday around the clock, around the globe. NJJA took off that morning of September 2nd on something we’d never before experienced, and I hope this encourages our young people to take on new things and positive challenges throughout their lives too.