Thousands of men and women work at MacDill Air Force Base, but for some of them, their jobs actually take place 26,000 feet in the air. That's where the KC-135 'Stratotanker' meets up with everything from fighter jets to bombers, delivering an in-flight refueling for thirsty aircraft.
Tampa residents are accustomed to seeing the big gray jets lumbering into the air. One flight on Thursday was a typical mission: After rolling down the rainy runway at 11 a.m., the crew headed for Louisiana and a date with a giant B-52 bomber.
The crew -- a pilot and copilot up front, and two refueling boom operators in the back -- enjoys few of the comforts that modern air travelers expect. The gray cabin is bare except for nylon jump seats lining the walls. Four windows in the cabin offer only limited views of the terrain outside, but there's one spot on the plane that affords a unique vantage point: The boom operator's station.
The boom extends out and below the back of the plane, where the receiving aircraft can hook on. SSgt. Ryan Thomas demonstrated Thursday how to use the joystick control to maneuver the boom into position once his 'customer' pulls to within just a few feet.
"The one thing we don't like is jerky, sudden movements," he explained. "We try to be as smooth as possible."
Even though he's got to keep a good eye on the delicate operation, lying down on the job is encouraged. The 'seat' is a horizontal padded board, allowing the operator to lie on his stomach for a panoramic view out the back of the plane.
A1C Christopher Cannon has been doing this job for about two years. But he's never had a B-52 on the other end of his 28-foot-long gas nozzle.
"Sometimes they like to get too close to you," he laughed. "It's my job to make sure they stay away."
The B-52 has been a mainstay of the Air Force's fleet for 50 years, carrying everything from cluster bombs to nuclear cruise missiles. What it lacks in beauty, the 'Stratofortress' makes up for in size -- its 185-foot wingspan easily dwarfs the otherwise large KC-135.
That was apparent as soon as the bomber pulled up. It floated closer and closer until its wings filled the entire field of view from the refueling station.
The Louisiana-based B-52 hooked up with the KC-135 over New Orleans and then repeated the procedure for the better part of an hour. No fuel was exchanged -- this was a training mission for both crews.
"Flying two aircraft in close proximity is inherently dangerous and unsafe, but we accomplish that mission every day," explained the pilot, Maj. Eric Zion. "When we have a big receiver pull up behind us, it forces our nose up. And when they pull away from us, it forces our nose down."
Zion's 11 years of experience was evident -- there wasn't a hint of turbulence as the B-52 dropped away and vanished above the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
With the mission complete, the KC-135 swung inland over St. Petersburg and headed for home -- just another day at the office for the men and women of MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing.
"It's a real challenging aircraft to fly," Maj. Zion added before getting ready for landing. "I enjoy it."