Thirsty Thunderbirds make good practice for tanker crew

For decades, KC-135 Stratotankers have fueled up and flown across the globe to fill up those who can't waste precious time on the ground.

On this day, we, and the crew, got a treat: The Air Force's aerial acrobatic team of F-16 thunderbirds stacked up in formation off our wing at 26,000 feet up. They were heading to an airshow in Melbourne and needed fuel.

One by one, each pilot swooped into position within 15 feet of our tail, while the KC-135's boom operator ever so gently guided the fuel hose, threading the most delicate of needles.

"You feel like sometimes you're playing a multi-million-dollar video game," boom operator Staff Sgt. Fernando Brome offered. "Sometimes it feels like that, but it's a great feeling."

With 85,000 pounds of fuel in the wings and in the plane's belly and a high-pressure pump, once they're locked in, the plane is capable of offloading 6,000 pounds of fuel a minute.

How fast is that? You figure your average car has an 18-gallon tank. Imagine pulling up to the gas pumps; this could fill it up in one second.

It's a capacity that enables them to be anywhere in the world in a matter of hours.

"A typical day is busy and also rewarding in the end," Capt. Robert Jurgensmeier said from the left-hand seat in the cockpit. "There's a little stress in between there. But for the most part, it's always a good day."

This flight was indeed a good day, but it also offered the tanker's crew some good practice for their role in the war on terror.

MacDill KC-135's are among those refueling American F-16s making bombing runs over Syria. In the past month, they've been involved in more than 140 missions in Syria and Iraq -- refueling and doing some dropping themselves.

"And we've, I guess, offloaded humanitarian aid and water," Sgt. Brandon Shapiro said. "We do what we can -- anywhere, anyplace, anytime."

MacDill's tankers have been targets for budget cuts over the years, until recently. Congress must vote on it, but they are currently slated to get eight more KC-135's in 2018, along with nearly 300 additional personnel to tend to them.