The skies over Alaska have been full of military aircraft over the past couple weeks. Fighter jets have completed hundreds of flights, and supporting each one was the much larger KC10.

The workhorse plane is 66 feet long, weighs 590,000 pounds and can haul 63,000 gallons of fuel. It has three engines, which each kick out 52,500 pounds of thrust, according to instructor pilot Captain Nathan Reineke.

He’s been flying the KC10 for six years and says even though it’s an older plane, he loves it.

“She’s smooth, she flies like a Cadillac and we’re able to go anywhere in the world,” said Reineke.

The KC10 is known as the gas station in the sky. It delivers gas to other planes, mid-flight, through a boom system. Boom operator A1C Benjamin LeClerc prepares for his first customer of the day.

“While we’re making contact you need to be constantly monitoring your gauges to make sure you’re doing it safe and effectively,” he said.

It doesn’t always go smoothly.

“Sometimes we have to do an emergency separation– which hopefully we won’t have today,” said LeClerc.

His first customer is an aerial surveillance plane called an AWACS. The boom deploys and the two planes successfully connect. The AWACS is less stable in the air, and it drifts too far to one side, forcing the boom to disconnect. The pilot comes in for another try but gets too close to the KC10 for comfort.

“Break away, break away, break away.”

LeClerc calls for an emergency separation. The AWACS pulls back and the two planes are once again flying a safe distance apart. He knows it’s part of the job, and LeClerc says situations like this are exactly why they train.

The rest of his customers are fighter jets. F15s and F18s approach in groups of four, all safely topping off their tanks.

Properly timing the approach of the many fighter jets in the exercise has been one of the lessons the KC10 crew learned during Northern Edge.

“We’ve learned, just through some growing pains, how to synchronize when we’re going to be air refueling and then also how many fighters that we can take at one time,” said Reineke. “Just having the airspace over Alaska has been amazing so that we can actually experiment and try new tactics, new techniques and it’s been really good for us.”

Northern Edge wraps up on Friday. The KC10 crew will then return to Travis Air Base in California.

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