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Aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker on a Refueling Mission

When you're about to run out of gas in your car, you don't think too much about pulling into the closest station to fill up.  The process is a bit more complicated if you're a pilot flying an F-16 Thunderbird with the United States Air Force. That requires an airborne filling station. 

For our series Off The Base, we went on a refueling mission in a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.


One of the 16 Eisenhower-era planes left MacDill on an afternoon in early October, and flew almost all the way to Louisiana to meet up with seven F-16 Thunderbirds on their way to an air show in Melbourne.

According to Capt. Robert Jurgensmeier,  these types of refueling mission happen all over the United States, and the world.

"Every day everybody needs training because we always have to stay ready for whenever we get the call, so pretty much every day we'll go out and do refueling with everybody all over the country, just to stay good at what we do,” Jurgensmeier said.

In the back of the jet, the boom operator lays on his stomach and controls the boom that juts out of the back of the Stratotanker and connects with the Thunderbird.


“They get really close, I couldn't give you an actual distance,” Jurgensmeier said. “I don't know what their books are and how close they fly, but I would say somewhere 20 feet, 30 feet maybe."

When he has a full tank, the Thunderbird pilot gives a wave, and then drops out of view. All of this happened as the Stratotanker flew at around 345 knots, or about 500 miles per hour, according to Jurgensmeier.

The seven F-16 Thunderbirds received about 30,000 pounds of fuel.

“Then they flew in formation back with us and departed somewhere around Seminole, and headed toward Melbourne, and we continued back home to MacDill,” Jergensmeier said.


In 2013, when MacDill lost a bid for new KC-46 tankers, military officials said the older, KC-135s will remain a priority at the base. 

Lottie Watts is our Florida Mattersproducer, and she also covers health and health policy for.