When Air National Guard Lt. Col Marc Zubricki pilots a KC-135 air refueling tanker, his crew has to wear headsets to protect their hearing because the cabin noise is so loud.
“If I want to talk to you I have to lift up your headset to talk to you or I literally have to scream at the top of my lungs,” Zubricki said this week as she showed visitors around one of the two KC-46A air refueling tankers at the 157th Air Refueling Wing at Pease. “The only way to really communicate is to plug in and use the intercom and talk into a microphone to talk to each other. If you’re not using that, you can’t really communicate … you’re using hand signals and yelling at each other.”
The massive KC-46A is the next generation of air refueling tankers, which will ultimately replace the KC-135 tankers. The Air Force and Air National Guard has been using the KC-135s for 60 years.
The new tankers are 159 feet long, 51 feet high and have a wingspan of 159 feet.
They can carry roughly 212,000 pounds of fuel, which tanker crews can then transfer to a variety of planes around the world while both are in flight, Zubricki said.
They also represent a new level of technology and operational ease and efficiency, he added.
“This airplane, when we get up above 18,000 feet, we just take our headsets off and talk to each other, it’s not much louder than it is now,” Zubricki said during a tour of the KC-46 on Thursday. “That’s because it was designed as an airliner initially and it’s got all that technology.”
When the Air Force and Guard starts using the new tankers for missions, the boom operators – who coordinate the critical job of transferring the fuel from the tanker to the receiving airplane – will no longer be “lying down on their bellies on the floor of the airplane,” Zubricki said.
Even in the summer, the boom operators have to wear heavy clothes to keep them warm in the KC-135s, he said.
“It’s freezing back there so they’re lying down freezing their butts off, but now they’re going to be sitting here,” Zubricki said as he pointed to the seats right behind the cockpit where the boom operator and air refueling operator sit.
“They’ve got their latte in the cup holder from the coffee maker, it’s completely different. You can do a better job, work a longer day, be less fatigued, be safer in this airplane because of those differences,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference anyone will say.”
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the KC-135, it’s an amazing airplane, 60 years old and they’re still flying,” he added.
Officials from the 157th Air Refueling Wing, along with retired and active Guard members, were joined by a bevy of federal officials during a ceremony in August when the first of the two new tankers landed at Pease.
Zubricki described the occasion as “huge,” because it marked “the first time an Air National Guard unit has ever got a brand new airplane right from the factory at the same time as the active duty Air Force.”
Zubricki piloted one of the new tankers from McConnell Air Force Base to Pease.
“We got to go pick up these two airplanes and fly them back, that was really cool, that was something,” he said.
“I felt very comfortable flying this airplane very quickly. The refueling stuff and the mission stuff that’s the stuff it’s going to take a little time to learn,” Zubricki said.” Flying across the country, I felt very comfortable. It’s an extremely capable airplane.”
The new generation tankers will continue the mission of proving aerial refueling services to U.S. and NATO aircraft around the world.
That’s something Zubricki has been doing while piloting the KC-135 tankers.
“I haven’t been to Australia yet, but name a place anywhere else in the world and I’ve been there, just in my years at the base,” he said.
Zubricki showed visitors the cameras on the belly of the plane that will give boom operators an up-close look at the receiving plane while they’re aligning the boom – which drops down from the tanker and into the receiving plane.
“They sit at the consoles and they use these controls to move the boom left, right, up or down, all while looking at the screen,” Zubricki said.
Things will be easier for the pilots of the receiver planes when the KC-46s are used in missions, he said.
Lights on the belly of the plane, called PDIs or “pilot direction indicators,” help “the receiver pilot remain in the center of the refueling envelope,” he said.
“If the aft (tail) light illuminates while you’re under the plane with the boom down, and you need to come forward, it’s going to tell you,” Zubricki said. “… They’re going to tell you up or down, left or right, forward or aft.”
“If you’re right in the center, you’re going to have a green light here and a green light here, meaning you’re perfect on the forward and aft and you’re perfect on the up and down,” he added.
There’s also a compartment on the belly of the plane, which can be opened so crew can pull down a ladder, climb up, and quickly be inside the plane.
“If you need to get inside faster you can climb up this ladder, step on a platform, climb up another ladder and end up in the floor of the plane,” Zubricki said.
Behind the cockpit and crew seats of the new tankers, there’s also a massive fuselage area that can be converted to carry anything from passengers to cargo to wounded soldiers.
“It’s really built well for air medical evacuation missions where they would basically convert this into a flying hospital,” he said. “They’re folded up right now but when they pull out, they can be used for bunk hospital beds.”
“It’s designed to be convertible,” he added.
The new KC-46A also has state-of-the art communications and tactical systems, Zubricki said.
And, he stated, the new tankers have another feature.
“This is a wide body fuselage so the fuselage has way more space, and they’re also longer too,” he said. “Everything about them is bigger.”
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