Every day, KC-135s roll down the runway at MacDill Air Force Base and climb into the sky over Tampa Bay. From there, the big gray tankers could be going anywhere, providing fuel to thirsty fighter jets, bombers, or transports headed around the world.
Thursday, one KC-135 took off just before 8 a.m., headed for the southwestern U.S. It's the kind of mission her crew flies all the time, but around Independence Day, it takes on a special meaning -- especially when the mission is to refuel the Air Force's famous Thunderbirds.
NOT A LOT OF COMFORTS
The KC-135 is based on the Boeing 707 airframe and looks like a normal -- if drab -- airliner from the outside. But there's no mistaking it for a passenger jet from the inside.
First, there are no rows of chairs. Netted rigging along the cargo area wall provides seats for the crewmembers. And if you like quiet in-flight conversation, forget it. Noise from the air and the engines makes earplugs a constant requirement.
Though they fly all over the world, you won't see much of it from the main cargo area. There are only four small windows. And a jacket would be a good idea -- despite the crew's best efforts, the plane seems to have only two climate-control settings: hot and cold.
GETS THE JOB DONE
Of course, that's because the Stratotanker's mission is to transport fuel, not people. The planes can hold up to 200,000 gallons of gas, which they feed to other aircraft during flight using a boom lowered from the back of the plane.
"It's what gives the U.S. Air Force our global reach, global power. It's what gives us our ability to go anywhere in the world at any time," Capt. Brian Fallis explained from his seat in the cockpit Thursday.
The tankers belong to the 91st Air Refueling Squadron, stationed at MacDill as part of the 6th Air Mobility Wing. But just because they are based in Tampa doesn't mean they stay there for long.
Capt. Fallis has been deployed around the world six times in seven years, and he remembered sitting at alert on the runway in Tampa for days after the 9/11 attacks.
"It's certainly not the most glamorous job in the Air Force," he conceded. "We're not the ones dropping the bombs; we're not the ones providing air cover. But we're the ones that are making it possible."
CATCHING UP WITH THE THUNDERBIRDS
Thursday's mission was to fuel up the Thunderbirds -- the Air Force's red, white, and blue demonstration team of F-16s -- as they headed across the country for their Independence Day weekend shows in Michigan.
After a morning takeoff, the KC-135 headed west towards Arizona. While passing over the Grand Canyon, the Thunderbirds arrived literally out of the blue for their first of two refuelings.
Their bright paint scheme stood out in stark contrast to the pale morning sky and pastel colors of the desert. They immediately caught the eyes of the dozen or so Air Force Academy cadets who were on board the KC-135 as part of a summer training program.
The cadets crowded around the few windows as the F-16 pilots brought their planes up to the tanker's wingtips, and they took turns slipping into the refueling well where they had to lie on their stomachs alongside the boom operator to get a close-up look at the refueling process.
"Without the tanker refuelings, we couldn't do our mission. And our mission is to represent those 500,000-plus men and women who are serving abroad," Maj. Kirby Ensser explained as his F-16 took on fuel from the Stratotanker.
After refueling, the Thunderbirds flew alongside the tanker as the formation headed east, providing a high-profile escort suitable for a president.
Once the planes reached eastern Kansas, they topped off their tanks and headed for Michigan.
A 'COOL' MISSION WITH A PURPOSE
Capt. Fallis has flown a mission to refuel the Thunderbirds once before, but it was a first for refueling boom operator SSgt. Scott Thatcher.
"They were some of the best receivers I've ever had, some of the best guys I've ever had to work with," he said after the flight.
"It was awesome," agreed Cadet Joana Everett. "That is possibly the best thing I have ever done since I've been in the Air Force."
Even the Thunderbird pilots -- for whom patriotism is practically a job requirement -- found Thursday's flight extra special.
"It's a huge honor to be able to fly during the Fourth of July, especially with our troops deployed," Maj. Chris Austin said from the cockpit of Thunderbird 2. "I can't think of any bigger honor than to represent them during our nation's birthday."