Laying on his stomach, in an ice-cold compartment with a master sergeant just an inch or so away, Airman 1st Class Andre McClain made a critical connection.
The newest boom operator with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, McClain performed an aerial refueling mission with a fighter aircraft for the first time ever in his two-and-half-month old career as a boom operator on Jan. 13, 2015.
“Yeah, it was a little nerve-wracking,” he admitted afterwards, standing in the rear of a KC-135 Stratotanker, cruising somewhere above 20,000 feet over the state of Michigan.
How’d he do? Master Sgt. George Hall gave him the thumbs-up after the two Airmen climbed out of the boom pod in the rear of the aircraft.
McClain joined the Michigan Air National Guard about two years ago and worked initially as a personnel specialist in the 127th Force Support Squadron. When the opportunity to become a boom operator became available, he jumped at it.
“I have always wanted to be a flyer,” McClain said. “That’s why I joined the Air Force.”
During McClain’s technical training at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and with his unit at Selfridge since then, McClain has only had the opportunity to transfer fuel from his tanker to “heavies” - Air Force slang for large, multi-engine cargo aircraft, bombers and the like.
But on a cold, cold January morning on a routine mission out of Selfridge, there was a much smaller aircraft outside his window in the rear of the KC-135.
“There’s a different feel with the fighters, because they are so much lighter,” McClain said.
In this case, the receiving aircraft was an A-10 Thunderbolt II flown by the 107th Fighter Squadron. Both the 107th and the 171st are part of the 127th Wing at Selfridge.
McClain said he loves his job as an enlisted air crew member and is hoping for a long career with the Air Force.
Hall, who is overseeing McClain’s training process, said keeping situational awareness is the key to being a solid boom operator.
“The biggest thing working the boom is to keep all of the pilots informed about what’s going on,” said Hall, who has been working as a boom operator at Selfridge for about eight years. He was a loadmaster on another type of aircraft at Selfridge before that.
“You’re the eyes for the pilots of the KC-135 in the back of the aircraft. You need to make sure everyone knows what’s happening. Communication is the key,” Hall said.
In Fiscal Year 2014, the 171st Air Refueling Squadron transferred about 18 million pounds of fuel during aerial refueling operations.