Former boom operator returns to the Air Force 50 years later

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shawn Rhodes
  • 927th Air Refueling Wing
When the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot hooked up to the KC-135 Stratotanker and looked through his canopy into the boom window of the aircraft above, he was surprised to see the face of an 87-year-old man smiling back at him.

More than 50 years ago, James Watland sat in a boom pod of a KC-135 very much like one he sat in May 5, 2012, during an orientation flight for employers and civic leaders hosted by the 927th Air Refueling Wing here. The flight gives civilian employers an experience of aerial refueling while educating them on the Air Force mission.

In the 1950s, then-Staff Sgt. Watland was learning the ropes of the brand new aircraft. He retains the essence of that bygone era, wearing a crisp collared shirt, suit jacket and is quick to start a friendly conversation with strangers. He recently found himself back in the boom pod of the same kind of 1950's-era Stratotanker he used to fly in. This time, he was watching a very modern fighter jet receive fuel below him.

"Every plane I flew in and refueled when I was in the Air Force is sitting in a junkyard somewhere, everything except these 135s," Watland said.

With no formal education, Watland was able to obtain his pilot's license, rise into the enlisted and commissioned ranks of the military and spend a career as a pilot for a commercial airline. But first, he had to escape his hometown in rural North Dakota.

"In 1952, I was a poor kid living on a farm," Watland explained. "When the Air Force recruiter told me I could make $74 a month, it was more money than I'd ever seen in my life."

As a boom operator, Watland was among the first to fly in the KC-135 Stratotanker when it rolled off the assembly line. Prior to the advent of refueling aircraft like the KC-135, planes had to land to refuel.

"Back in 1959, those (KC-135s) were like new Cadillacs," Watland said. "They were so new they had that new car smell."

Watland knew his destiny was not in the back of the plane in the boom pod, but in the cockpit. In his free time, he pursued his dream of flying by paying for his own flight lessons. He said he laughs today when he thinks about where he thought his career would take him.

"I wanted to be a crop-duster," Watland said as he laughed. "For anyone to hire you then, you had to have thousands of hours of experience, something I didn't have."

A chance meeting with an Army captain gave Watland the chance to fulfill his dreams.

"The captain said because of my flying license I could get a direct commission in the Army," Watland said. "I never thought I'd be a pilot. I couldn't even spell it." He jokingly continued, "And there I 'are' one!"

Pilots were in high demand during the Vietnam War. Watland was commissioned as a warrant officer and flew helicopters on numerous combat missions, moving troops, cargo and medical supplies all over the Asian country.

When his time as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in the Army was done, he served in numerous National Guard and Reserve units while he was working as a commercial pilot for a major airline. Watland found himself lying down in the boom pod again as part of a recent bosslift orientation flight hosted by the 927th Air Refueling Wing here.

While many parts of the airplanes reflect decades of engineering advancement, it still retains parts that haven't seen updates since the 1950s.

"I think people in maintenance and the engineers should be incredibly honored about it," said Pullen. "It is amazing that these aircraft have been flying for nearly 60 years and are still in such high demand."

"With these planes, it's like riding a bicycle," Watland said. "Once you learn it, it stays with you wherever you go."

The way the octogenarian talks about his fond memories of flying in the Stratotanker, it would be easy to think they were old friends.