ABOVE MIDLAND, Texas — For Senior Master Sgt. Brian Dillon, the mission is about as close as he comes to a walk in the park.
The 190th Air Refueling Wing, part of the Kansas Air National Guard and based at Forbes Field, is “dragging” the Navy’s elite Blue Angels jets from Louisiana to their next performance in California.
For the 190th, it is one of the last missions of the federal fiscal year, which concludes at the end of September and will mark the most flight hours ever for the wing in a year — about 6,500.
At peak performance, the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 jets can burn through their fuel in a matter of minutes. Two of the 190th’s KC-135 planes, gorged with fuel, will resupply the eight fighter jets multiple times throughout their journey west.
“We’re going to give them 85,000 pounds of battle nectar,” one crew member says beforehand.
Dillon, an affable yet grizzled member of the 190th — his helmet says “Bad Ass” — operates the boom on one of the 135s that allows the battle nectar to flow from one aircraft to the other.
With a flick of the wrist or twitch of a finger, he can send the boom moving as the 135 drags it through the sky like a dog drags its tail.
The 135s take off late morning, and about 2 p.m the Blue Angels suddenly appear. The jets flank each wing of Dillon’s 135.
Just feet away from the wing tip, Blue Angels pilot Lt. Ryan Chamberlain (the pilots’ names are emblazoned on the side of the jet) continuously moves his head between the sky ahead and the plane beside him. Chamberlain later flashed a peace sign as he flew by.
At any given time, multiple voices may be speaking into Dillon’s headset. His job requires being able to concentrate enough to wield the boom precisely while still processing what is being said.
It is a position that requires Type A personalities and self-starters, Dillon said. That is the kind of person he wants when hiring new boom operators. Type B personalities don’t do so well.
Yet the high-stress atmosphere has a way of binding the whole crew together. Teasing and joking have a way of building friendships — even if the humor can sometimes have an edge.
“We’re not cuddly and nice. We’re pretty brutal at times,” Dillon said.
Wednesday’s flight offered ideal conditions for Dillon: blue skies and little turbulence.
Dillon operates the boom face down in a pod at the rear of the plane that he calls his office. The docking procedure with the jets most of the time goes seamlessly, and the fuel is delivered under pressure to the jet below.
But even in ideal circumstances, challenges can arise. While refueling one jet, a hose the fuel was passing through was causing difficulty. In frustration, and with strong language, Dillon — whose experience extends back to the 1990s — at one point tells the Blue Angels pilot to move over. If either the 135 or the F-18 had moved more than a few feet in relation to each other, the hose could have snapped.
Circumstances aren’t always ideal, however.
When deployed overseas, Dillon has at times been tasked with refueling planes whose pilots are under tremendous stress, sometimes having been shot at or headed back into a war zone. And over time, the refueling missions themselves have moved closer to areas of conflict — an unnerving fact given that the 135 is unarmed.
Most recently, the 190th has assisted operations targeting Islamic State militants in the Middle East. The U.S. has been bombing ISIS targets for more than a year since President Barack Obama first authorized the strikes.
“You may not be the pointy end of the spear, but you’re right behind it,” Dillon said.
So far, being just behind the tip of the spear has paid off, because the 190th Forbes Field has escaped previous military base closing efforts and appears optimistic about any future military shrinkage, or a base realignment and closure (BRAC) effort.
Joe Blubaugh, wing executive staff officer, said the base has several major assets that make it attractive, such as a massive hangar and a large ramp (the pavement where the planes can be parked when not in use), as well as a long runway — long enough that it used to serve an alternate landing spot for the space shuttle.
“BRAC is something that’s a potential challenge, but we think we’re positioned well because of all those assets I just mentioned,” Blubaugh said.
For Dillon, that may assure that what has become the family business continues: Two of his three sons serve as mechanics at the base, and all three have been in the military.
In fact, as Dillon’s KC-135 lands and comes to a stop, one of his sons helps guide the mobile stairs up to the side of the aircraft.
His day at the office is over, and it is time to go home.
The KC-135 Stratotanker has been in use for more than 50 years. It can have a gross weight of up to 322,500 pounds at takeoff. It has a wingspan of 130 feet and 10 inches, and can go as fast as 530 miles per hour. Each engine can produce 21,634 pounds of thrust.