For all but one of the Air Force cadets, this is their first flight aboard a KC-135R Stratotanker. Someday all six want to jockey Air Force F-16 fighter jets, helicopters, or the big refueling planes.
“Aviation is a field people want to pursue at a young age,” says Jay Weaver, a sophomore business management major from Pomeroy. “That was me.” He considered attending the Air Force Academy but wanted a college life, too, so chose Washington State University.
“I like what we are doing today,” he says, looking ahead to the three-hour flight over the Idaho panhandle and western Montana. “It gives us a good feeling about the Air Force.”
Jennifer MacLennan of Pullman completed a degree in architecture last May. Now she’s seeking a degree in Spanish and an Air Force commission. Her goal is to fly helicopters. She admits the current world situation scares her a bit-“the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen.”
While most of Jacob Olds’s friends are curious about his involvement in AFROTC, they are supportive. The junior in biology from Mountain Home, Idaho has wanted to fly F-16 jets since he was 10.
After boarding the KC-135R at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base, the cadets look for a place to stow their box lunches under the canvas seats. U.S. Air Force Tsgt. Joe Riener moves through the cargo bay distributing packets of spongy yellow earplugs.
“Anyone nervous?” he asks in jest. “I wish I wasn’t.”
Riener has made more than 1,800 flights, many as a boom operator on the big tankers. He is a member of the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, where the WSU and University of Idaho cadets are guests on this Friday in mid-November.
Col. Yoshio Smith, commander of AFROTC Detachment 905 at WSU and chairman of aerospace studies, arranged the visit.
“This is one of the ways we get students excited about what we do,” he says. “This is real world, face to face.”
An hour before takeoff, Smith lays an eight- by-11-inch map on a table in the command room and explains the mid-air refueling exercise to the cadets. The KC-135R will hook up with a C-17A Globemaster from McChord AFB, Tacoma.
After completing the pre-flight checklist, pilot Col. Dan Simmons says, “Take a deep breath. We’re ready to rock and roll.” When the Stratotanker levels off at 26,000 feet, the cadets are free to visit the cockpit, try on headsets, and tune into the exchange between the pilots, navigator, and Riener. He has taken his prone position in the boom bay beneath the plane’s tail. Gripping a joystick in his right hand, he peers through a three-by-one-foot-wide window. The 30-foot boom trails below at a 30-degree angle. Four cadets lay on their stomachs in the bay, two on each side of him. They are riding on 30,000 gallons of gasoline, wrapped in the aluminum of a $39.6 million tanker. The C-17A arrives for the rendezvous and closes in less than 23 feet behind. The planes are cruising at 450 mph.
“If you let a gas pump at the gas station run 24 hours straight, you couldn’t offload as much gas as we can [3,730 gallons] in four minutes,” Riener explains.
The cadets have a bird’s eye view of the pilots below maneuvering the Globemaster into position. The linkup is repeated seven times, as three pilots aboard the KC-135R and four pilots on the larger plane behind test their skills.
The 905th Detachment ranks in the top 10 nationally among 144 AFROTC units, according to Col. Smith. The ranking is based on the number of second lieutenants produced. WSU commissioned 28 in 2002, with 39 expected this year. Forty percent of the 185 WSU-UI cadets want to fly.
“For those who want to become pilots, the Air Force offers the best pilot training in the world,” Smith says. Cadets are selected to be pilots during their junior year. Training begins after they graduate and are commissioned. The national average acceptance rate is 59 percent. Last year WSU’s initial pilot selection rate was 75 percent, when 11 were selected. The total included four cadets chosen to participate in the elite Euro-NATO jet training program, limited to the top 10 percent of the class.
“We are successful, because we brief the cadets about all the ins and outs of the pilot selection process. We also counsel each pilot wannabe one-on-one,” Smith says. “We make sure that they get the best score in each of the areas they have control over-their GPA, physical fitness scores, field training, and officer qualifying tests.”