What it takes to be a boom operator

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Nathan Clark
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Boom operators on an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker have the ability to pump thousands of pounds of fuel to any capable aircraft, thousands of feet above the ground, flying at 200 knots, all while only 47 feet from colliding into each other. However, before any of this is possible, they had to go through extensive training.

Altus Air Force Base is where the path begins for all KC-135 boom operators, including Staff Sgt. Amanda Walls, a former KC-135 crew chief with Tennessee Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Squadron.

After spending six years as a KC-135 crew chief, Walls said she decided she was ready for a career change.

"I felt like being a boom operator was a new challenge and I was at a turning point in my career," she said. "I loved being a crew chief, but I just felt like this was an advancement."

Already being familiar with the KC-135 from her previous career field, Walls was ready to learn more.

"I expected to learn more about backing up the pilots, and how to operate the boom," she said.

Walls came away with a lot of knowledge, more than just being able to make good contacts during refueling.

Much more in fact, before boom operators come to Altus, they spend one month at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, learning the basics of tanker aircraft. Students also spend approximately three weeks in survival school, and then spend the next four months at Altus studying, training in simulators, learning checklists and flying.

"When you're flying as a crew chief, you're not as involved as the crew on the KC-135," Walls said. "This is more hands on when flying. Now I'm part of the crew; it's much more involved."

With so much going on, the students rely on their instructors to provide the knowledge and support they need.

"We expect students to know the procedure in the checklist and have a basic knowledge of how the systems on the plane work," said Tech. Sgt. Logan Berry, a 54th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator instructor. "We want them to study in their spare time and come to each flight with a good attitude, prepared to accomplish the mission and willing to learn their part."

With experience under his belt and the expectations set forth, Berry, along with his fellow instructors, provide the confidence and support the students need.

"My instructors were very knowledgeable," Walls said. "Usually a student will have several different instructors so they can have advice from different points of view. They know the job inside and out."

"My approach is to be very hands on at the beginning and gradually pull back," Berry said. "On the first flight I will demonstrate several things, make a lot of the radio calls and sometimes help the student on the control stick. As the training goes on I will slowly fade into the background as the student takes charge and grows into their job."

After making it through much of the classroom and simulator instruction, Walls was ready to get back to the aircraft so she could put her knowledge to work.

"For my first flight I was nervous the morning of, but as soon as I stepped on the jet, the nerves were gone," Walls said. "I think it was partly being back on the flightline in my comfort zone and having a good foundation."

Berry said, new students are generally very good at running checklists correctly and have solid book knowledge. "Putting that knowledge to use can be a bit overwhelming at first because things happen pretty fast."

Knowing they are all in the same boat, Walls said the students help each other as much as possible when their on their own.

"The other prior service students and I would usually get together and hit the books. Although, due to scheduling, we didn't fly together we would always check in with each other and see how everyone was doing," she said.

All the studying and help from classmates typically pays off, Walls said.

"Usually around flight three or four they have that 'Aha!' moment and everything starts coming together," Berry said. "The checklist is run faster, their boom control is improved and they have increased confidence on the radios and in themselves. They're less dependent on their instructor and able to use their own judgment on how to get things done."

"My biggest challenge was flying the boom and making contacts," Walls said. "One of my instructors was able to point out that I had a death grip on the stick and by relaxing I was able to gain control."

For all KC-135 boom students, the training is extensive and can prove to be very challenging, but with help from instructors and fellow students, in just four months of training will prepare them for keeping aircraft in the air and helping maintain air superiority.

To all future boom students Walls gives this advice, "Stay in the books. The more you know, the better you're going to be at this job. It's more than making a good contact during the refueling."