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Fill 'er up, mister?

The massive flying fuel tanker known as the KC-135 keeps fighter pilots in action, as it has for half a century.

By JOHN BARRY
Published August 31, 2006


TAMPA -- The pilot seat upholstery looks like blue shag carpeting, circa 1960. Almost everything else looks the same as it did then: the same swollen gray fuselage, the four flat black throttles for four jet turbines, the needle gauges and chrome switches, the port in the cockpit ceiling where navigators once plugged in their sextants and shot the stars.

The retro motif makes it hard to picture this KC-135 tanker plane as anything more than a Cold War relic. You picture a red-faced Khrushchev pounding his shoe. It's harder to imagine the aircraft as a modern war machine, an Air Force weapon in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The flight crews at MacDill Air Force Base, who maintain and fly 12 of them, are quietly commemorating the tankers' 50th birthday today. The planes - basically 707s equipped with giant bladders where luggage would go - first rolled out of Boeing in 1956. That was about the time Elvis Presley recorded Heartbreak Hotel. More than 500 are still flying.

They've outlived turntables. They've outlived the Nash Rambler. They even survived a Pentagon scandal a few years ago. Tanker crew chief Erick Jensen must bridge two vastly different technological eras to keep them in repair.

Call them dinosaurs, he says, but don't write their obituary.

"These aircraft could fly as long as there is fossil fuel."

***

The first time now-retired Air Force Maj. Neil Cosentino sat in the shag-carpeted pilot's chair was 1966. He's now 69, living on Davis Islands. He is something of a public figure. He has been a Democratic write-in candidate several times and helped lead the crusade to save the old Gandy Bridge.

He has been invited back to reminisce. He looks blissful. "Pilots always want to fly," he says, hands on the controls. He's not currently thinking about missions over the North Pole, refueling bombers with nuclear payloads, or his missions over Laos, gassing up F-4s (which he also flew) during the Vietnam War.

He's remembering lobsters.

"We sometimes took 'recreation flights' to air shows and things," he says. "I was on a recreation flight from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to Portsmouth, N.H.

"I wanted to bring back lobster. So I'd brought along an 18-foot aluminum canoe, something that would keep salt water from getting onto the plane. Then I had a load of live lobster delivered right to the tanker. We threw the lobsters into the canoe along with bushels of apples and pumpkins.

"When we got back to Barksdale, a long line of people were waiting for us. They all had pots and pans."

***

Cosentino tells the story to Capt. Tommy Lee, who is half his age but now flies the same planes for the 91st Air Refueling Squadron at MacDill. They share the same passion for these beasts, but there's a difference. Maybe it's that Cosentino wears a soft polo shirt, and Lee an ironed jumpsuit. But Lee keeps a very straight face as Cosentino recalls his exploits. If Lee ever makes a lobster run, he isn't owning up to it.

Lee wears a blue silk scarf with lightning bolts on it under his jumpsuit. It's the scarf of his squadron. Scarves are a hallowed part of aviation tradition, dating to the era of the Red Baron when pilots used them, in Cosentino's words, "to wipe the beer off their chins." (Lee's poker face never changes.)

It wasn't always the Pentagon's idea for Lee to be flying the same planes Cosentino piloted when girls wore poodle skirts. In 2003, the military hailed a plan to lease 100 new tankers from Boeing and send some to MacDill. But an investigation led by Sen. John McCain revealed a potential waste of billions of dollars. One Air Force official went to prison. The plan was scrapped. The old KC-135s kept flying.

Earlier this year, Lee was deployed to Diego Garcia, a British island midway between Africa and Southeast Asia in the Indian Ocean. From there, he refueled American and British warplanes patrolling Afghanistan.

The art of refueling remains much as it was in Cosentino's day. Lee calls it "a fantastic procedure." Cosentino calls it a ballet. A tanker approaches a fighter jet nose to nose, each flying at about 350 mph. At exactly 21 miles (a couple of minutes) apart, the tanker rolls into a 180-degree turn. It's then directly in front of the fighter, ready to lower the boom. Some mathematician figured it all out.

A boom operator lies on a mattress in the aft, peeking out a rear window. He orchestrates the hookup. The tanker pilot can't see a thing.

The view from the cockpit, though, is sometimes magical. Cosentino remembers a night over Laos in December 1972 when he counted the red beacon lights of 25 tankers lined up across a black sky.

"I looked out and saw all these red lights, strung like Chinese lanterns. They were the tankers, refueling more than 100 fighters. I thought, 'Only America can do this.' "

Some of Lee's favorite missions sound more like nightmares. "On a perfect day, it's easy," he says. "But at night, in a storm, that's when an aircraft commander has an opportunity to shine. That's what we train for."

At night in heavy weather, the boom operator can't see the plane coming in until it's right under him. But if the fighter has no fuel left, there's no choice but to try to hook up.

"You throw the book out sometimes," Lee says.

***

Cosentino had one memorable night of "no rules."

On Nov. 3, 1967, he had been ordered to report to his tanker squadron in Plattsburgh, N.Y. "Just get it up there," he was told. He was handed an envelope. "Open it after you take off."

The note told him to fly to Greenland and "circle as long as you can." Somehow, communications for a system for detecting ballistic missiles had failed. The military wanted to get planes over an Air Force base in Greenland until repairs could be made.

Cosentino and his crew "orbited" for 11 hours, longer than they - or any other tanker crew at the time - had ever flown.

"We were close to the North Pole where compasses are unreliable. It was overcast, no lights anywhere. The navigator couldn't shoot off the moon or the stars. We were supposed to shut down two of our four engines for maximum orbit time.

"My thinking was, 'There are other aircraft behind us to fill the pipeline. I don't want to shut down two good engines while orbiting in winter at the edge of the Earth.'

"We started getting cold and put on more clothes. We had to be the coldest human beings on the planet."

Finally, the communications system was fixed. They had hit their fuel limit. They could come home.

Cosentino told his co-pilot he could land the plane. But the co-pilot didn't mention that the controls felt like "molasses," after 11 hours in temperatures that were minus 60. "I think the plane froze over Greenland," Cosentino says.

"As we got on our approach, we put our gear and flaps down. Just before touchdown, the plane sort of fell out from under us - fell out of the sky. I grabbed the throttles and jammed them to full power. The power caught and we touched down like a feather, then bounced back in the air, leaping 40 to 50 feet."

They came around again, flying on empty, and landed safely.

Cosentino figures he set two KC-135 records that day:

Longest flight.

Biggest bounce.

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.