1. Life & Culture

What’s it like flying the KC-135 refueling tankers at MacDill Air Force Base?

Conversation with Major Morgan Norman, who work with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron of the Air Force

Maj. Morgan Norman, 32, pilots a KC-135 Stratotanker out of MacDill Air Force Base, and her workplace is the world. She and her crew routinely perform a sort of aerial trapeze act for the U.S. Air Force, coordinating with American and allied aircraft to top off their gas tanks high in the sky. The two planes, connected by the fuel boom, fly along at 350 miles per hour or faster while separated by a few yards.

Norman’s father, a 27-year Navy veteran, worked in airfield management at Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base in Texas, so she grew up around airplanes and said she "always had the desire to get in the air.'' The major, with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron, joined the Air Force a little more than 10 years ago and plans to spend her career in it. She talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the job.

How do you coordinate the air refueling maneuver?

Actually, before I flew the KC-135, I was a C-17 (transport) pilot, so I do have some receiver experience as well as tanker experience. But we both have the same flight plan, we meet up at a point in space, and it’s precoordinated, so we know exactly where the other plane is going to be and exactly what time. ...

And then we work with ATCs (air traffic controllers). ... They give us the air space and the clearance to maneuver that close to another aircraft. Typically, you’re not allowed to fly that close to another airplane, but military has special permission to execute these maneuvers. … So once we get that permission, we meet at that point in space and we what’s called "drag'' the receiver. We just go down our course and our receiver follows us. Our boom extends 12 to 20 feet, so at any time typically another airplane is within 15 feet of us getting gas.

If the receiver gets too far beneath your plane, that’s extremely dangerous, isn’t it?

Yes. There are certain positions that we like less for the receiver to be. Our boom operator... he’s in the back of the airplane and watching the receivers. He keeps us up-to-date on where the receivers are, and if we need to be getting ready to, it’s called a "break-away.'' They’ll call that if needed, if we need to quickly separate from the receiver for any reason. So we do have procedures in place to prevent any mishaps from happening.

A KC-135 Statotanker refuels an F-16 fighter. Photo: Courtesy of Maj. Morgan Norman

Would the receiver moving too far beneath cause a tanker on autopilot to descend?

Different situations can cause the plane to descend or climb based on what the receiver is doing. Some airplanes, as they get closer, the aerodynamics sucks the two planes closer together instead of pushing them apart.

You say the larger cargo planes "push us around a little bit more'' while refueling. Is it pushing you away or to one side or another?

No, you just feel in the controls that the air is flowing differently around the airplane. So you just have to pay attention to what your plane’s doing, make sure you stay on course and your airspeed is stable. The job of the tanker is to just be as predictable and stable a platform as possible, so the receivers can get the gas that they need without encountering any sort of emergency that is pilot error.

Though you had been a C-17 pilot, were you anxious at all when you first flew the tanker solo?

We go through so much training, and they don’t let you go off by yourself until you have instructors, experienced pilots, sign off that, hey, this person is responsible enough and can go do this mission without any instructor supervision. We have procedures in place to make sure our folks are ready to execute the mission safely and successfully.

When I was a young captain, my first aircraft (solo sortie), yeah, those nerves are there. You don’t want to mess up. But you just have to go back to your training, everything you’ve learned, know that you’re fully capable and just go from there.

Does the boom operator work from a prone position in the back of the KC-135?

Yeah, they still lay on their stomach (and) look out the boom sighting window. That technology has not changed in this airplane for 65 years.

You must have a good relationship with your crew.

Oh, yeah. ... You have to be able to trust everybody on the airplane. Everybody has their own specific role. … I have full trust in my boom (operator) and full trust in my copilot, and we just have to keep the communication open so that we’re all on the same page.

What is it about flying that you like?

Really, it’s just getting away from it all, (getting) up in the air, seeing the world from a view that very few people have the opportunity to see it from. Flying around the world has been phenomenal. I’ve been around the world in 10-day trips twice. Just seeing all those places and just saying that you have done that has been awesome.

Mayor Norman said that her job was her dream job since child and allowed her to see the world. Photo: Courtesy of Maj. Morgan Norman

What are some of those places?

In the tanker, I’ve been to England, the Middle East, obviously… I’ve gone to countless countries. My husband’s also a pilot in Air Mobility Command and we have a map at home. We have pins in all the countries that we’ve been to, and it’s just full. … I’ve seen Mt. Everest and Mt. Fuji in the same day (from the air). That was a great trip. …

Diego Garcia, out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I’d say, is probably one of my favorite locations. … It’s purely a military installation, but it’s beautiful.

So you’re happy doing what you’re doing.

Yeah, I mean, honestly, living the dream. Who else can say they can take off and be in a whole different country half a day later on the government’s dime?