Airman trades pastry chef's hat for boom

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips
  • 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Airman 1st Class Kai Bresser has a knack for collecting unusual job titles. Before he was a boom operator in the Air Force, he was a pastry chef.

Boom operators, as they are commonly known, are in-flight refuelers aboard tanker aircraft. Bresser is currently serving with the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing's 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at a forward-deployed location supporting operations Enduring Freedom and Southern Watch.

Although the entire crew of a KC-10 Extender -- pilot, copilot, engineer and boom operator -- play a critical part in refueling U.S. and allied aircraft here, the boom operators are the focal point.

If they do not do their job or do it haphazardly, it could lead to catastrophe.

In the flying world, error is an unacceptable word, especially for an aircraft that does not carry parachutes, costs $88.4 million and flies 30 feet away from the other multimillion-dollar aircraft that it is refueling.

That built-in anxiety is part of the reason why Bresser loves his job.

"Boom operator is the best enlisted job in the Air Force," said Bresser, who is stationed at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. "You get treated equally with officers because of what you have to know."

In the pastry world, it was the opposite. He discovered his level of expertise was secondary to a piece of paper: a certificate with English writing on it.

The Florida native has credentials stating he is a pastry chef, but they are in German; he received his training at his family's bakery in a small town called Moerfelden-Walldorf near Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany.

Translating his European training into American recipes and measurements proved somewhat difficult. Still, he found work at several prestigious American hotels upon his return: a 4-star in Orlando, Fla., and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Yet, at his prime, regardless of his intensive training and job experience, he had maxed out as a pastry cook and could not get promoted to chef.

Bresser decided it was time for a change, and the Air Force seemed like the right fit. He wanted to be a German linguist, but that field was not available; in-flight refueling was, and it came with perks such as travel, a plush bonus and the allure of learning something unusual.

For Bresser the one thing chef and boom operator have in common is patience. His favorite pastry to create is a wedding cake because of the detailed work and patience it requires.

"It takes a steady hand to make a cake, as it does to refuel an aircraft," he said. "You have to be patient. One slip and you could bang up the aircraft or crack a canopy."

A boom operator is a three-man show wrapped up in one person.

"I'm responsible from the front door all the way back to the end of the aircraft," said Bresser, whose technical school is approximately a year and a half long.

Boom operators are also responsible for loading cargo and passengers. They are in charge of evacuating passengers in emergencies.

Loading an aircraft also takes math skills to balance all the machinery and supplies.

"I have to give it to him. He's got skills," said Tech. Sgt. Louie Ayala, a 908th EARS flight engineer who balances the fuel load and oversees the boom operator as the highest-ranking enlisted person on the aircraft.

The KC-10 is more complicated to load than other aircraft. It has to be loaded from the side, not the back. It has a contoured shell, which means all pallets must conform to the curved sides of the aircraft. Plus, each area of the aircraft floor has different load capacities that must be obeyed or the floor could cave in on top of the fuel tanks.

Bresser says refueling is the fun part of his job, one he does not get to do as often as he would like except on deployments where refueling is his primary function.

There are three ways to refuel an aircraft: boom, drogue and wing air refueling pods. The boom is a solid steel pipe that boom operators maneuver into the receiving aircraft's fuel receptacle. The drogue is a heavy, cable-like pipeline that Navy and NATO aircraft pilots must maneuver their plane into to make a connection. The pods enable the boom operator to refuel two planes at once.

After the boom operator establishes contact with the aircraft's fuel tank, the computer takes over. Up to 1,100 gallons of fuel flow through the boom per minute and about 470 gallons per minute through the drogue.

The boom operators are not actively pushing levers as the customer takes on fuel, but they are not sitting back relaxing either. They are continually scanning back and forth between their gauges and the receiving airplane looking for potential problems. Are the gauges functioning properly? Are any warning lights on? Is the other plane moving erratically or dangerously close to the KC-10?

"The boom operators are the pilot's eyes and ears back there," Bresser said.

That has become more important recently since enemies continue to attain more sophisticated technology and would like nothing more than to destroy an Extender and other aircraft.

Bresser has heard stories from other KC-10 crewmembers who have actually been shot at while refueling planes over Afghanistan and other countries.

He likes both of the jobs he has held, pastry chef and boom operator, but said baking a cake now somehow does not quite stack up.