Refueling the Thunderbirds

It’s an honor to fly with America’s finest.

Last year, I was lucky to receive an ESGR nomination to join a refueling flight from Fairchild Air Force Base – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I was certain would never come again. But, life has a few surprises every now and then, and Monday, Aug. 13 was no exception.

A flight for local media representatives helped refuel eight F-16 fighter jets, collectively known as the Thunderbirds.

Simply put, it was the thrill of a lifetime. Again.

Taking off in the 92nd Air Refueling Wing’s flagship KC-135 aircraft, we met up with the Thunderbirds, who were on their way from Canada to Nevada, following the performance of a show. With the weather in Spokane being in the mid-80s, and temps inside the plan before takeoff being slightly higher, getting into the regular flight was a breath of cool, fresh air. The KC-135 is an older plane, and due for replacement at some time by the KC-46A, but the Air Force maintenance group keeps them running in pristine shape. Although they’re due to phase out at some bases, the last KC-135 pilot hasn’t yet been born.

To add to it, I don’t think Alaska Airlines or Southwest are still flying aircraft from the 1950s. The efficiency of military maintenance crews is simply astounding.

Having fewer people on the flight this time around, 11 compared to around 30 last year, meant having a few extra minutes with the boom operator. Taking a peek out the windows also didn’t require waiting in line – something that was just as exciting as watching the refueling process itself. Seeing the white planes flying alongside ours is breathtaking. The careful skill of each pilot was on display, in perfect sync with the other aircraft

Sitting in the cockpit’s jump seat on the way back can’t be put into words. All the dials and buttons, gauges and switches – it would be either heaven or a nightmare for anyone with ADD. And, despite there being so many of them, each instrument serves a purpose, just like each person on that flight served a purpose.

What a difference a year makes. Since that first flight, I’ve been able to learn an incredible amount of information about the base, the aircraft, and personnel, which brought a new approach to the flight. While I was still a wide-eyed, giddy photographer for the day, the importance of Fairchild to the region and the security of the U.S. couldn’t have been more real. As the base commander said before we took off, Fairchild is fueling freedom – including the occasional refueling of the Thunderbirds.

Our military is filled with men and women who have chosen a challenging assignment that deserves our full support. Whether it’s a visit with my own family or an assignment out at Fairchild, I’m humbled by those who have given so much in their service. Among those are the public affairs department at Fairchild, who, as one would expect, are extremely talented professionals. Working with them when on the base has been a highlight of my time at the Cheney Free Press, and I eagerly look forward to my future coverage of the base.

Words really can’t express how grateful I am to have personnel like that working at Fairchild, making Spokane a better place. But for now, I offer a sincere and heart-felt thank you.

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