CORAOPOLIS, Pa. – A Pennsylvania Air National Guard KC-135 tanker crew from the 171st Air Refueling Wing responded recently to an unexpected request for fuel from a B-2 bomber crew.
The three-man crew was performing a preflight checklist on the KC-135, call sign Steel 51, preparing to depart from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma City, to their home base near Pittsburgh Oct. 25. The crew was returning the aircraft after scheduled maintenance.
Just before takeoff, with the first of four engines started, Steel 51 received an unexpected call requesting immediate refueling for a B-2 Bomber. The B-2, call sign Fury 72, had about 90 minutes of fuel.
Moments before that call, Tech. Sgt. Scott Nagel, a boom operator with the 171st, received the initial request from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Nagel said it’s normal to get calls for fuel throughout the week, but refueling missions are typically scheduled weeks in advance for routine operations and training. When he asked when they wanted to schedule, they responded: “We need it right now.”
Realizing the urgency of the situation, Nagel relayed the message to the duty officers, Capt. Seth Melnick and Lt. Col. Erik Schillo. They scrambled to coordinate with Tinker AFB, Whiteman AFB, and the Steel 51 crew.
Steel 51’s crew, pilots Maj. Dan Dynys and Capt. Bryant Laris, and boom operator Master Sgt. Mike Worthington only had enough fuel to fly to Pittsburgh as the aircraft was not scheduled for an air refueling mission. But Steel 51 was the only tanker ready and within range that could help.
“We only had enough gas to make the flight home, but Capt. Melnick asked how much extra we might have to give to a receiver and how soon we could take off,” said Laris. “He informed me that the receiver would be able to meet us on our planned route of flight, so we agreed to take off as soon as possible and figured the rest out in the air since time was critical for the receiver.”
The plan was made en route. Steel 51 would give the B-2 as much fuel as possible while leaving enough to circle back to land at Tinker AFB.
“Once we were airborne, we flew as fast as we could to try and meet the receiver,” said Laris. “Everyone on our crew was working hard to expedite the rendezvous with the receiver, coordinate a random air refueling with air traffic control, and calling Air Force bases in the area to coordinate a divert if it would be necessary.”
Fury 72, a stealth bomber aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons, was scheduled to land at Whiteman AFB after a long-range test mission. Due to a sudden and unexpected runway closure, Fury 72 had no place to land and was circling above Whiteman AFB until the runway could reopen. Diverting the technologically advanced stealth bomber to another air base was a last resort, as it would require extensive coordination and time. Air refueling would prevent the need to divert.
Roughly 45 minutes after Nagel received the initial call, Steel 51 and Fury 72 began lining up for air refueling. Weather conditions and visibility were poor due to a nearby storm. Worthington, the boom operator on Steel 51, saw the silhouette of the stealth bomber approaching through the clouds and guided the 20-foot boom into position from his location at the aircraft’s tail.
The stealth held its position about 20 feet below the 63-year-old tanker. Worthington extended the boom and offloaded 17,500 pounds of fuel, allowing Fury 72 to stay airborne long enough for the runway at Whiteman AFB to be cleared for landing.
“Overall, we were very lucky to be in a position to assist,” said Laris. “All the members of our crew and the crew of Fury worked expeditiously to overcome a real world, time-critical, air refueling mission that was made very challenging with adverse weather and minimal planning time available.”
Steel 51 circled back to Tinker AFB, landed, refueled and continued to Pittsburgh the same day.