By Brian Livingston
The solid layer of white puffy clouds from the storm front that moved over Lauderdale County late Thursday night looked by Friday morning like God had thrown cotton candy across the sky.
As the KC-135R tanker of the 186th Air Refueling Wing rose ever higher, bright sunlight, with a dark blue backdrop, shone down. Faces pressed against small windows of the big gray jet as a dozen special guests strained to get a unique view of their world. The sound of screaming engines drowned out any real conversation but that didn't seem to matter.
"This is my first flight," said Pam Bittick of Meridian, whose husband, Thomas Bittick is a captain with the 186th ARW. "This is pretty cool."
Bittick, like the other 11 people were special guests of the 186th ARW of the Mississippi Air National Guard stationed at Key Field in Meridian. It was the Spouse Flight sponsored and arranged by the 186th ARW Family Program. Program coordinator, Connie Myers, has been on about a dozen such flights so she has pretty much earned her wings. She has also earned the respect of everyone with the 186th ARW as she is the spouse of an airman and also the mother to two others and to a daughter-in-law. She said she gets a kick out of watching the faces of the guests as the mission unfolds.
"Not many people get to do this," said Myers. "There are hundreds of airmen who work on the base every day who have never been up on a mission."
During the briefing earlier as the guests prepared to board a bus to take them out to the tarmac and the tankers, 186th ARW Commander Col. Franklin Chalk told them this special mission was the wing's way to say thanks for all the support they give their spouses as they defend America and the world.
"Your support of your husbands and wives is most important," he told the group. "Without you behind them we would have a hard time filling our planes with pilots, our bases with ground crews and our offices with other personnel."
The mission for today would take a two-ship flight up to Missouri and across to Oklahoma to rendezvous with a B-52 Stratofortress from the 93rd Bomb Group of the "Mighty" Eighth Air Force stationed in Shreveport, La. The massive bombers that are proven warhorses, dwarf even the converted Boeing 707 passenger airlines the Air Force uses as tankers. To see these two massive machines a mere 40 feet from each other while traveling at 250 mph at 30,000 feet is an awesome sight. A sight none of these people have ever witnessed before.
"I loved getting in the pod and working the boom," said Pam Thompson as she climbed from the rear compartment that holds the refueling boom operator. "I wasn't scared at all. Which was a pleasant surprise."
Thompson's husband, Mickey Thompson, is a veteran of the U.S. military and air forces with more than three decades of service. Pam Thompson said he has always encouraged her to fly in one of the tankers to get a better idea of what his job entails.
With Sgt. Jake Way at the controls, the pilots of the "Buff" slip underneath the tail of the tanker. Way talks to both his pilot and those deftly handling the controls of the bomber to ensure everyone is on the right page. The clear blue skies and absence of any significant turbulence makes everyone's job much easier. Flanking Way are guests who get to lie next to him and watch as the bomber drifts in for the hookup. You feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the huge aircraft as the nozzle connects pumping fuel into its tanks. Seconds later the nozzle is detached, a spray of raw fuel splashes into the thin, cold air and the bomber slides away.
Myers said this smooth flight is the result of months of work. She said operation schedules have to be decided on and other arrangements and clearances have to be made well beforehand.
"We even have to consider the time of day and the time of the year when we plan these so there are a lot of factors that have to be considered," Myers said. "But when we get to this point, where everything goes off without a hitch and the guests seem to enjoy themselves so much, it is worth it."
As the bomber becomes a speck on the bright horizon over Oklahoma, the tanker turns to start its return journey to her nest. The guests, somewhat tired from the excitement, the movement of the jet and their clamoring over every inch of her, are now quiet as they settle in for the hour-long flight back to Key Field. Each, it seems, is replaying the events, the images, they have just witnessed. It is clear each of them have come away from this flight with more appreciation of what our servicemen and women — their spouses— do to keep us all safe.
By Brian Livingston