Air Force Boom Operators

Air Force Boom Operator
Staff Sgt. Jonny Gomez works the control panel of a KC-135 Stratotanker as he unloads fuel into a B-52 Stratofortress. Official USAF Photo
by Tech. Sgt. Mark Munsey

Staff Sgt. Jonny Gomez is not the type of guy to take something lying down, but he is extremely proficient at giving it out that way.

Giving fuel, that is, and when he is belly down in the boom pod of a KC-135 Stratotanker, the responsibility of aerial refueling aircraft supporting the war on terrorism is literally in his hands.

Lying on their stomachs in the tail section of a Stratotanker, boom operators peer through a small window while maneuvering a refueling boom into an awaiting aircraft thirsty for fuel.

At more than 20,000 feet, even the smallest offloading obstacle can become a sky-high challenge to keep the boom connected to the customer aircraft, said Sergeant Gomez, a boom operator with the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at a forward-deployed location.

“Turbulence and weather are big concerns” he said, but it is those challenges that he said makes his job such a thrill. A sudden gust of wind can cause the boom to disconnect, requiring the boom operator and pilot to re-establish a connection.

“I actually get paid to refuel jets in-flight and travel around the world,” he said. “I’m sure there are people (who) would pay good money to try their hand at what I do for a living.”

The boom operator’s mission is of no small significance, said Capt. Brandon Fleck, a KC-135 pilot with the 340th EARS.

“Our ‘booms’ … often make the difference of whether an aircraft has enough fuel to complete the mission and return home safely or abort the mission and possibly divert into a hostile area,” he said.

Relative to those refueling missions, the unit is redefining the term “more with less,” Captain Fleck said.

With just more than a quarter of all U.S. Central Command area of responsibility tanker assets, the 340th EARS’ Airmen pump out more than 50 percent of the fuel theater-wide, the captain said.

In June, the unit performed 345 missions, unloading almost 20 million pounds of fuel to 1,937 customers.

While Captain Fleck is proud of the team’s many successes, including a 99-percent missione-effective rate, he said there is always room for improvement. Such efforts are appreciated.

“Every asset is prosecuting the mission as a team,” said Lt. Col. Mark Hammond, 124th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander and F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. “Without the tankers, we wouldn’t be putting jet noise over the ground troops, giving them a comfort level and installing fear in the enemy.

“Every time there is a ripple in the system, the mission changes,” he said. “The 340th are more than willing to move tankers to facilitate those ripples. I’m one of their biggest high-speed cheerleaders.”

In other words, the 340th team keeps everyone’s mission moving, Captain Fleck said.

“All involved in planning and executing air operations understand that without our fuel, the air war does not continue,” he said.