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Mission Accomplished: Refueling Fighter Jets in Mid-air with the US Air Force

August 15, 2012 at 4:24 PM | by | ()

"This is my day off!"

Not words you want to hear from a man in a flightsuit, controlling a plane on which you're flying. That is, unless it's Wayne Hanna, who spends his work days in American Airlines aircraft maintenance and his free days as a KC-10 Extender Flight Engineer with the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

Hanna would be the reason why yesterday thousands of passengers on AA flights out of New York-JFK Airport witnessed an Air Force KC-10 Extender plane taxiing around and parking at a gate. His seemingly crazy idea to bring together his two passions to draw attention to the upcoming NYC Air Force Week was given the green light. So we joined him onboard the aircraft for an up-close demonstration of what to expect during the event.

The mission: Take this KC-10 Extender up into the skies near Cape Cod and rendezvous with four F-15C Eagle fighter jets and one C-17 Globemaster III for midair refueling practice.

For a few hours these Air Force Reservists went about their training mission while we tried to grasp the fact that yes, we'd flown in this plane before (and possibly so have you). Though this military-gray aircraft is mostly cargo space, fuel tanks and the retractable boom that allows it to refuel other aircraft, it's actually a modified Boeing/McDonnell Douglas DC-10.

While most DC-10s have moved away from commercial service with airlines including KLM, American, United, Iberia, Japan Airlines and more, they're still out there in capacities such as this military tanker. And, though this wasn't even brought up at the event, the flight's co-sponsor American Airlines was actually the launch customer for the first DC-10, delivered in 1971.

The results: While we definitely refueled the F-15s, there was no sign of the C-17 during our brief visit to the rear refueling post at the very butt of the KC-10. And while many asked the usual questions of how much fuel can the plane hold (54,000 gallons) and how long can it fly without itself refueling (19-ish hours), we wanted to know something a little more personal about the men and women in uniform who keep this baby up in the skies.

What was it they always said they wanted to do when they grew up—the things they'd write about in elementary school essays and doodle in notebook margins? For this KC-10 crew, it was always about airplanes and, yes, joining the Air Force. For them, sitting in that rear compartment to refuel F-15s isn't as crazy awesome as it was for us; it's just another day on the job. Air Force Week is a way of stepping back for a moment and realizing that, yeah, they're actually living their dream.

The details: Air Force Week is a free event held in and around the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on Manhattan's west side. Running August 18-21, 2012, the Week includes flying demonstrations from the Air Force Academy Falcons, Thunderbirds, Helicopter water rescue missions, and the chance to pester the pilots with questions, just as we did.

Disclosure: We joined this special flight as a guest of the US Air Force's 514th Air Mobility Wing, American Airlines and ACV (Air Compassion for Veterans). All photos, video, and opinions presented are completely our own.

[Photos and video: Cynthia Drescher/Jaunted]

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