The making of an A-10C pilot: 'Night Operations'

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stacie N. Shafran
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Since I started writing this series a few months ago about 1st Lt. Dan Griffin, one of 12 students nearing completion of the 358th Fighter Squadron's A-10C Pilot Initial Qualification Course, I've not only heard my fair share of pilot stories, I've seen a number of them "told" with hands that have magically turned into airplanes.

Usually I listen, smile ... nod when appropriate. Secretly though, I've longed for a tale or two of my own to compete with one of theirs.

Well, I finally have one ... and it's sure to make you smile.

So there we were (this is how all the good stories start) - me; Airman First Class Kristiana McDonough, a broadcaster; and Airman First Class Jerilyn Quintanilla, a photographer, in the rear, so-to-speak, of a KC-135 Stratotanker from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard's 171st Air Refueling Wing, flying 11,000 feet above Southern Arizona around 9 p.m. on July 22.

We were far from the glow of Tucson's city lights and there was only slight illumination from the moon. It was definitely dark outside.

The three of us were crowded near the boom operator, Master Sgt. Casey O'Connor, peering out of a tiny window, as we waited for Lieutenant Griffin and his instructor pilot, Capt. Keith Bonser, to check into the airspace. As I listened intently on the radio, I finally heard them call in as they approached.  There were about a mile out.  I passed this news to my troops, who readied their cameras.

If you've been following the series, you know I wrote in depth about the lieutenant's first daytime air refueling in late April.  Excited to watch him accomplish this aviation feat that day, I hadn't dared to interrupt his concentration by talking to him on the radio. Later on, after we all had landed, he asked why I hadn't said hi. Ah! I missed my moment.

Now that I had the chance to watch him accomplish his second nighttime air refueling, I vowed I'd say something to him on the radio. Still, I was nervous about interrupting his concentration. I mean, days earlier, he mentioned to me that refueling at night was probably going to be the hardest thing he'd have to do in the jet. The last thing I wanted to do was cause a crisis.

As we scanned for signs of the approaching gray-skinned A-10Cs in the vast darkness, the only light we saw was the faint glow at the end of the boom. Then suddenly, and very stealthy, a jet appeared below us.

The boom light was pretty much the only light Lieutenant Griffin could see too and it was all he had for a guide. To make all of this a bit more challenging, he was required to remove the night vision goggles that he'd been using for the duration of the sortie.

With instant success, he connected to the boom. As soon as he did, he was able to briefly talk to Sergeant O'Connor, who was ready to offload 1,000 pounds of fuel. Not wanting to miss my chance to talk to him -- loudly and confidently -- and maybe a little too excited, I yelled into the radio's mouthpiece "Hi Daaaannnn."

And it was in that moment, the four of us watched as Lieutenant Griffin "fell off the boom," or disconnected too soon.

I was, to say the least, stunned by what I'd just done.

Sergeant O'Connor, with a laugh, told me over the radio that I must have startled the lieutenant.

None of us were really quite sure what had happened. The connection with the radio wasn't all that strong, even between Lieutenant Griffin and Sergeant O'Connor. I surely wasn't about to get back on and ask him.

All of this aside, Lieutenant Griffin demonstrated the same precision and skill that he had exhibited during his daytime refueling by connecting again and successfully uploading fuel.

Just as this was a new experience for the lieutenant, it was a new experience for my troops, who tested out their night vision capabilities for the first time. Not only did my young Airmen learn more about their talents and capabilities, but because of this series, they have been able to see and do things most people don't get to experience. Despite the darkness, I could see their faces fill with awe as we watched what makes us the best Air Force in the world.

Not only was I proud of Lieutenant Griffin, but I was so proud of my public affairs team, especially Airman McDonough and Airman Quintanilla for their professionalism, can-do attitudes, and their excitement as well as their dedication in telling our Air Force story. Without their expertise and creativity, especially during this mission, we wouldn't be able to bring this series to life for our audience.

My Airmen and I also were witnesses that night to some incredible total force integration, as exhibited by the mix of Guard and active-duty pilots, crew and aircraft. A force multiplier, total force integration brings the best from the active-duty and Guard components together and capitalizes on each other's strengths. In this case, having a super experienced Guard boomer definitely helped the students in their quest to look like total naturals at night refueling. The experienced pilots often say that having a good boomer is worth its weight in gold, especially on a night as dark as this one was.

So I know you're curious. What really happened to cause Lieutenant Griffin to fall off the boom?

With a big smile and a few laughs, he mentioned to us a few hours later at the squadron that his radio volume wasn't turned up as loud as it needed to be, preventing him from hearing and talking to us. As he focused on reaching behind his seat for the volume control, he let off slightly on the power, causing the jet to lower slightly below the boom.

Hopefully this is a rookie mistake the lieutenant won't make again.

As we watched the other students complete their first night refuelings, some other mistakes were made, but thankfully nobody returned to base with anything more than some hurt pride and a few lessons learned ... instead of part of the boom stuck in the receptacle.

Most of us will only see the jets fly overhead, taxi down the runway or take off. This series, through stories, photographs and videos, will go behind-the-scenes into Lieutenant Griffin's life as he becomes one of the Air Force's next A-10C pilots. The photos and video from this mission, along with the rest of the series, can be found on