NJ-based crew refuels the Air Force mid-air

Around 10,000 feet above some indiscriminate government-owned tract of Indiana, a 182-foot, 33-year-old air tanker carrying 170,000 pounds of fuel when it left New Jersey's Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst that morning just docked a 50-foot metal tube into a receptacle in the nose of another aircraft while flying at around 200 mph.

"I go by Festus," the pilot of that other aircraft radioed through our headsets. "I'm a lieutenant colonel."

A member of the Air National Guard out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Festus completed his first mid-air refueling stop many years before while flying an F-16 on a training mission probably much like the one we shadowed on this early October morning.

"Kind of intimidating at first flying a relatively small airplane behind a giant gas tank," he said.

But this story isn't about Festus or the 163rd Fighter Squadron, 122nd Fighter Wing out of Fort Wayne or the A-10, affectionately nicknamed "The Warthog," Festus now flies.

"At the end of the day, they can't do it without us," Staff Sgt. Challis Landsberg said. "They can only go so far without fuel."

Landsberg controls the boom extending from the rear of this KC-10 Extender used to transfer fuel to other aircraft while in flight.

"It takes some guts," she said.

Hailing from a town of 13,000 in western Colorado, Landsberg joined the Air Force five years ago, selecting her role as boom operator from a book in a recruitment office. Numerous training missions and one deployment ("undisclosed location in Southwest Asia") into her service, Landsberg had refueled 17 different kinds of aircraft as of the first week of October.

"The A-10, the B-1, B-2, B-52," Landsberg began to recite alphabetically.

Each type, each individual plane, each situations provides its own unique challenges.

"F-15, F-16, F-22," Landsberg continued.

The A-10s out of their base in Indiana -- joining Landsberg's tanker from New Jersey for this late-morning training sortie -- specialize in close-air support of troops on the ground and thus fly relatively slowly.

"They have a tendency sometimes to chase the boom," Landsberg said.

Boom operators like Landsberg would prefer the recipients of their handiwork just hold still and let the boom come to them.

"[Fighter pilots] are the sexy part of the Air Force," Staff Sgt. Evan Bazeley said. "Everybody talks about fighter pilots."

But flight engineer and project-lead for these two days of training, Farmington, Pennsylvania's Bazeley reminded us: Fighter and close-air support planes can burn through their fuel reserves in an hour -- less in a dogfight or combat scenario -- and thus often rely on air tankers circling above the battlefield to complete their missions.

"They could end up ejecting from their aircraft if they ran out of fuel," Landsberg said.

Dispensing as much as 8,000 pounds of fuel a minute, the KC-10 can carry 356,000 pounds of fuel. It also doubles as a cargo carrier with the ability to transport 75 people and 170,000 pounds of cargo over distances of 4,400 miles before requiring refueling.

"It's very big, especially when we're working with fighters and a lot of aircraft flying close together," Bazeley said. "And then you throw weather, bad radios in there. It can be very complex."

Adding fuel to that potential quagmire only increases the complexity of a tanker's mission. The Air Force's 59 KC-10s operate out of only two bases in this country: McGuire in New Jersey and Travis Air Force Base in California.

"It's just big," Bazeley reiterated again. "It's bigger than any other tanker."

The Air Force plans to start replacing McGuire's tanker fleet in 2021, spending $146 million in construction to prepare the base for the next generation of tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus.

Until then, on any given day members of these air mobility wings can fly anywhere all over the United States in support training missions like the one Fox 5 joined or, as during Hurricane Harvey, command and support aircraft or, when deployed overseas, fighters and bombers flying for this country or one of its allies, as the United States represents one of the few nations in the world with such a robust and vital mid-air refueling capability.