by Staff Sgt. Mary Thach
155th Air Refueling Wing, Public Affairs
9/3/2015 - LINCOLN, Neb -- At
12,000 feet, the airman from the 155th Air Refueling Wing lies on his
stomach in the KC-135 Stratotanker's boom pod, his hands tense on the
"Start guiding in the receiving plane," a voice tells him. The airman
may feel nervous, but the B-1 Lancer pilot sounds calm as he receives
permission to approach. With tracking lights the airman guides the B-1
closer: To within 10 feet, then 5, then 2. To the operator, the
extending boom seems to touch its own shadow on the jet nose. It
squeezes past the white "fishbone" pattern painted on the nose and nears
the refueling socket 15 inches below the pilot's front windshield. The
airman hesitates to press the button as the nozzle hovers over the
target--his delay proves costly.
A violent burst of wind pitches the bomber's nose toward the tanker as
the boom nozzle lunges unsuccessfully at the opening. Instantly the
nozzle smacks the windshield, cracking both on the $283 million bomber.
The broken glass forms a spider web on both windshields. "Well, I've
never seen that before," observes the voice. Gravely damaged, the B-1
zooms from view. The airman's stomach turns, sweat collects on his
forehead. This flight is over.
Luckily for the airman, he is aboard the 155th's new $1.1 million Boom
Operating Simulator System. Luckily for the squadron, the airman is not a
real boom operator and the bomber is not a real plane. The
digitally-rendered B-1 Lancer, cracked windshield and all, exists only
within the safe confines of the high-definition screens in the boom pod,
a product of the computer program whirring nearby.
The voice belongs to instructor Gene Ernst, the man controlling the
weather and the B-1 Lancer. Ernst chuckles as the airman gets his
bearings and climbs out of the boom pod, which is an exact replica of
the one found on the Stratotanker. This mission was purely educational,
but don't let that fool you: The system, which debuted in October 2014,
means serious improvements - at far lower costs - to airman readiness
for the nineteen boom operators assigned to the wing
From his five monitors beside the machine, which measures 22 feet by 21
feet, Ernst, a retired boom operator with 28 years of Air National Guard
experience, controls the weather, the planes, even the time of day.
"I can do clouds, fog, pitch and roll. It's as realistic as it can get with current technology," says Ernst.
So realistic, in fact, that some onlookers develop motion sickness when watching the video displays.
The launch makes the Lincoln Air National Guard Base, Nebraska one of 16 in the country to house the BOSS.
"We don't want our base to be the only one without a system," says
Ernst. Instead, the 155th can count itself on the cutting edge of
efficient and effective training.
Tech. Sgt. Brad Musick, also an instructor, says the wing has a clear
plan to take full advantage of the addition. "Once the TOs are updated
and the BOSS is certified, it will be used for semi-annual continuation
training of emergency procedures and general checklist usage in air
Speaking to BOSS's strengths, Musick adds, "It benefits the wing by
allowing the boom operators to see emergencies we normally wouldn't see.
That keeps our skills sharp."
The topography that the airman saw below him was a Google Maps overlay -
capable of portraying Nebraska corn fields or foreign windswept deserts
with equal accuracy. In early April, the U.S. Air Force deployed
Stratotankers to provide fuel for F-15 fighter jets in the Saudi-led
coalition against Yemen, according to the Pentagon.
Theoretically, simulator missions could be designed in this bay to mimic
the backdrop and challenges unique to that theater. Using safety
reports from the field, boom operators could then run test scenarios and
prevent repeating the errors of their real-life counterparts were they
to find themselves in a similar situation elsewhere.
Not only does the boom pod look real, it sounds real too. A Bose sound
system inside the pod mimics the Stratotanker's noise levels while
Ernst, from outside, throws curveballs at the operators inside, from
blown circuit breakers and wobbly boom equipment to turbulence and
aggressive or novice receiver pilots. If an operator listens closely,
they can hear the circuit breaker pop.
The machine is fully-automated - capable of recognizing an operator's
voice and answering back. It is this feature, says Ernst, which can be
programmed to mimic real-life emergency scenarios and provide invaluable
experience to airmen without their ever leaving the ground. In years
past, staying qualified obligated boom operators to participate in
actual flights, the price of which adds up as the operating cost per
KC-135 flying hour exceeds $11,000. And even when simulators became
available, 155th boom operators had to travel to Scott Air Force Base in
Illinois, a trek they made only twice a year.
Ernst said, "It's going to increase the ability and the training of the
boom operators. Instead of only going to Scott AFB twice a year, now
they can access the simulator any time they want."
And instead of making due with a limited number of training sorties,
airmen can perfect their technical skills through repetition on the
Because of the potential for the system to enhance Guardsmen
proficiency, Ernst expects technical order guidance to begin integrating
these missions into student training later this summer. Once students
complete a mission, an instructor can review with them the entire
exchange on computer screens nearby, a sort of play-by-play of the
action after the fact.
And while the airman in this scenario cozied up with a B-1, the program
can simulate missions with any aircraft the US Air Force refuels, from
U.S. Navy planes and NATO aircraft to those involved in secret
operations and even the Stratotanker's Multi-Point Refueling System.
Previously, as Ernst points out, airmen could only qualify on the system
while deployed. In the future, however, they will be able to qualify at
their home base and be ready when the time comes to contribute on
deployment, when they are called on to fly other squadrons' planes.
According to Ernst, airmen can expect greater integration in the years to come.
"In the future, the 155th will get a pilot simulator, which will sit out
in the neighboring bay. Then they can simulate the entire mission.
Later, we'll hook it up to receivers off base."
The addition of more training variables means a more varied proficiency
for boom operators. The addition of more proficient operators, of
course, means more successful missions and increased readiness for our
expeditionary Air Force.