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In Crowded, Bumpy Skies, a Risky Refueling Under The Stars

February 15, 1991

OVER SAUDI ARABIA (AP) _ As he banked the AWACS surveillance plane slightly to the right, Gary Voellger spotted one light among thousands of stars shining brighter than the rest.

″That’s the tanker,″ the Air Force colonel said, pointing ahead.

The easy part was over. For Voellger and his crew, nighttime aerial refueling - already a pressure-packed job - was about to become even more of an adventure.

Approaching the tanker, the cockpit suddenly was enveloped in clouds, a jolting pothole in the skies. ″A little weather up here,″ Voellger said. ″It’s going to be fun.″

Just then, several jets zipped by, on the right, and across the nose of the converted Boeing 707. A cockpit visitor with an untrained eye counted five or six aloud. Co-pilot William Kelley turned and smiled.

″I could point out about 20 different aircraft right now,″ said the Air Force captain from Atlanta. ″There’s beaucoup traffic up here.″

Kelley asked the guys at the AWACS radar consoles for reassurance. ″Please take a look for me and ... tell me they’re at different altitudes.″

Voellger was climbing toward the tanker when word came that an unidentified aircraft had just crossed south into Saudi Arabia from Iraq, and was heading in the direction of the AWACS.

Voellger, knowing another AWACS was watching his back, wanted to proceed, but his mission commander, Maj. Clark Speicher, of Wilkes Barre, Pa., recommended otherwise. After about 15 minutes, however, Speicher said the plane was not flying in a threatening manner and appeared friendly.

For the refueling, all unneccesary lights were turned off; Voellger and Kelley leaned forward to peek at the boom dropping from the huge tanker aircraft now directly atop them.

″Eight feet,″ Kelley said as the boom appeared outside the windshield, careening left and right like a long arm desperately trying to grab hold of something.

Just as it appeared ready to smash the windshield, the boom jerked up, and a thud shook the cockpit.

″Contact,″ Kelley said.

But the connection was lost, and the approach repeated.

″Contact,″ rang again in the cockpit headsets.

″Taking gas,″ offered the plane’s engineer, monitoring a series of fuel gauges nearing empty.

″Hold still,″ Voellger wished in vain, his hands gripping the controls, one trying to keep the AWACS lined up with the tanker, the other edging the throttle up and down to match its feeder’s pace.

″Lost it,″ said an exasperated Kelly.

The third approach took a bit longer than the others.

″Contact. ... Taking gas. ... He broke off ... Damn 3/8″

A fourth and fifth time the harrowing process was repeated, all the while the AWACS danced with the KC-135 tanker, as close as 12 feet at times, never more than 25. The deafening roar of the tanker’s four huge engines made it hard to concentrate, the powerful exhaust made it difficult to steer.

On the sixth approach, with the tanks about half-full, Kelley took over the controls, steering up underneath the KC-135.

But after making contact, Kelley, too, would lose the boom.

He approached the tanker for a seventh time, this time with a short order: just 2,000 more pounds of fuel. The tanker and AWACS banked left in unison, not unlike a figure skater trailing his partner behind.

Seconds later, the tanks were full and the roar subsided as the tanker pulled away.

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