"We're on a KC-135 Strato-Tanker," said Brigadier General Mark Zamzow, former Commander of the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force base.
He's answering that singular question of thousands of Lubbockites. What's the story of those big gray planes circling the Hub city's skyline? "What they're the key to obviously is a refueling station in the air," he said.
A massive gas tank with wings, that's what the KC-135 is designed to be. A crucial link in Air Force missions which require long-term flights. The hulking beast decoding over Lubbock on training missions for new pilots. Lubbock International Airport, one of just a few air fields nationwide that take part in the process.
"We're proud of our mission at Altus," said Zamzow."We are the only strategic mobility training facility in the country, so we train all the KC-135 air crews, the C-5 air crews, the C-17 aircrews right here, so every time you see these guys on TV doing their operational mission, just remember, they graduated from Altus," he beamed with pride.
And they flew over Lubbock, learning the intricacies of an airborne gas station. On a commercial airliner the fuel is stored in the wings. On the KC-135 it's also stored in the belly of the aircraft under wood paneling running the entire length of the plane. Total capacity, 31,000 gallons.
Hanging from the tail, a 20 foot spout, called a boom, with wings of it's own for more control. Fuel pumps are powered by a jet engine insulated inside the aircraft, capable of dishing out 6,000 lbs of fuel per minute. "And the refueler comes up behind them and we lower the boom and give them the gas," explained Zamzow.
No sooner had he finished, then suddenly, off the right wing, as if out of nowhere, an F-16, a thunderbird. Maximum speed 1,300 mph. Combat range, 575 miles. It's gas guzzling engines producing 23,000 lbs of thrust. Saddling up for a mid-air drink. "He took about 5,600 lbs of gas," said a crewman. His tanks topped off, the thunderbird bows out. The ballet of steel, power, speed and fuel, complete. Just another day on a KC-135.
There's over 400 of these tankers throughout the Air Force assigned to multiple bases throughout the US and over seas. Back on the ground, the engines cool, the blades turning as slowly as a child's pinwheel. Meanwhile, overhead, a new mission begins...