LINCOLN, Neb. - At 12,000 feet, an Airman from the 155th Air Refueling Wing lies on his stomach in the KC-135 Stratotanker’s boom pod, his hands tense on the controls.
“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 and 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 (BOSS). 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 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 refueling.”
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 simulator.
Because of the potential for the system to enhance Guard members’ 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.