COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Fueling fighter jets hundreds of miles per hour, thousands of feet in the air: it’s just another day of work for members of the South Carolina Air National Guard.
Security is sure to be tight on the ground at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA ahead of Super Bowl LIII. But a team is also working to patrol the skies, including the Tennessee and South Carolina Air National Guard.
But before WIS’ Sam Bleiweis got to go up thousands of feet in the air, we had to start on the runway at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, where pilots introduced us to the KC-135 aerial refueler aircraft.
"This particular airplane is a 1957 model so 62-year-old airplane,” said Tech Sgt. Andrew Weber.
It's a support tanker for the F-16 fighter jets. And the one stationed for the media flight was from the Tennessee Air National Guard. SCANG staff and pilots took a crew of about a dozen media members aboard the KC-135 to see how the aircraft performs missions during the highest stakes scenarios.
"This is a mission that's going on 24/7, 365,” said Lt. Colonel Jeff Beckham, who is a SCANG F-16 Pilot. “Imagine the pressure of being in combat where the fighter is trying to get back on scene to drop some bombs, or there’s weather to deal with or something like that."
The mission is through NORAD – or the North American Aerospace Defense Command. It's the combined group, including the Air National Guard, that patrols the skies.
And during heightened security events, like the Super Bowl, NORAD partners are ready to respond anytime, anywhere. And on this day, we got to witness a refueling training mission ahead of Super Bowl LIII. But the refueling doesn’t happen on the ground – it’s airborne.
"It is my responsibility to direct the receiver aircraft in the position we use lights under the aircraft to do that because voice over the radio to do that,” said Tech Sgt. Weber. “When I’m ready to refill them I tell them you’re cleared to contact. I say their call sign and I say you’re clear to contact. And that’s when they start to move forward.”
Weber is what’s called a “boomer.” That’s the designated person who has to lay down in the back of the plane to maneuver the “boom,” which is essentially a gas hose. The boomer then positions the boomer with the help of a number of different controls and lowers it into the receptacle on top of the F-16.
"It's a lot of visuals with the lights, visuals for me making sure he's in the right position and also if we need to give verbal correction forward or back or up or down for we can do through the radio,” Weber said.
The task is critical. The F-16’s might need to be in the air for several hours and are only carrying a couple hours worth of gas.
"Everything looks really kinda peaceful, serene,” said Beckham. “There's a fighter moving into position there and gets his gas. But realizing that you have two airplanes that are flying 300 something miles an hour inches away from each other."
So – it’s in the brightest spotlight, with the highest stakes – that this quiet giant fuels a spectacular show.