By Brian Livingston / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
The work of an airman in the 186th Air Refueling Wing stationed at Key Field in Meridian has been one of variety the last several years.
First of all the wing lost their coveted KC-135 Stratotankers to military restructuring, causing many of the airmen to transition over to the MC-12 or RC-26 reconnaissance aircraft platforms, or to transfer out of the wing altogether. Then the wing was handed the C-27 Spartan cargo plane mission and those men who were once boom operators, or "Boomers" as they were called, went through training as load masters and cargo specialists. Now the wing will be coming full circle with the return of the big gray birds of the KC-135.
"I'm glad we have the tankers coming back," said 186th ARW Tech. Sgt. Joel Jones. "I've missed them and I know a lot of other people have as well."
The air refueling mission was born in Meridian, and if ever there was a place tankers belong it is in Meridian, Jones said.
"There is so much history with the refueling mission here so it just stands to reason we get the tankers back," said Jones. "Plus, we are so good at the mission."
As far as air refueling being in Jones' blood, that could be easily said considering his dad, retired Chief Master Sgt. Daniel Jones, was a boomer as well and an instructor to other prospective Air National Guard airmen. The elder Jones was stationed at the same base in Oklahoma where Joel Jones received his training but because of the relationship issue, dad wasn't allowed to instruct his son.
"There was a piece done in the local newspaper near Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma and they said me and my dad were birds of a feather," Joel Jones said chuckling. "But in reality he couldn't even come near me. But he was watching."
Jones has just returned from his seventh deployment overseas. After 10 years in the full-time Air Force as a boomer on KC-135s, Jones joined the Air National Guard and the 186th ARW in May 2005. He said he is known as the old man among boomers.
"They are so young," Jones said of his comrades. "That's OK though. I know more."
Jones will be requalifying back into the cramped boomer perch situated in the tail of the massive jets. It is quite a different ride than the aerial surveillance duties he just completed. For three months stationed at Bagram Air Force Base in northeast Afghanistan, Jones flew 66 missions and 327 flight hours sitting in front of monitors scanning the ground for threats of any kind. It was an arduous job that was punctuated by a flurry of activity whenever ground units became engaged by hostile forces or if the aircraft sensors and sophisticated cameras picked up unusual activity.
"Sometimes we'd work alongside special forces teams and sometimes we'd just go to a designated area and fly a specified mission looking for anything out of the ordinary," Jones said.
That is a far cry from the missions flown as a boomer.
Lying down in the tail of the tanker, boomers have to manipulate controls and buttons to literally fly the refueling boom down to the aircraft needing the fuel. At night during choppy weather conditions there are two aircraft within spitting distance sharing the same airspace. And when those aircraft are of the bigger variety, such as a B-52 Stratofortress or B-2 Stealth bomber, the windscreen fills up pretty quickly with major military hardware.
"It gets interesting sometimes," Jones said. "But I love it. That is why I'm so glad to be going back to the tankers."
Jones was well aware of the loss recently of a KC-135 tanker over Kyrgyzstan. He said he didn't fly any missions out of that particular base but had flown in and out of it going and coming for deployments.
"I don't know if any of the personnel were from our wing, I don't think so, but it really hurts to hear of losing some of your fellow tankers and boomers no matter who they are," Jones said.
Getting the tankers back makes Charity Jones, Joel Jones' wife of several months, happy as well. The Meridian couple have five children between them. Joel Jones said his wife and kids have been an excellent support group for him and that he wouldn't be able to do what he loves without them.
"They are just great," Joel Jones said. "Find a happy military person and I'll show you a strong family support group behind them. Family means everything. That is one of the main reasons we do these jobs. To protect our families."
And Joel Jones said the Air National Guard is an extended family that goes to great lengths to support the immediate family.
"We had camaraderie in the full-time force but in the air guard that camaraderie and support is greater," he said.
In July, when the first of the tankers is tentatively scheduled to appear in the skies over Meridian, Joel Jones will be one of the first to climb into the massive jets, walk to the back and slip into an all too familiar spot. It is a place in which he is comfortable.