Image copyright Maeson L. Elleman/US Air Force
By Mike Fitzgerald
Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat
FIVE MILES ABOVE EASTERN NEBRASKA — Air Force Maj. Ben Louden leaned back in his seat, both hands lightly on the W-shaped control yoke of the KC-135 Stratotanker under his command.
More than an hour had passed since the air tanker took off from Scott Air Force Base, in southwestern Illinois, on a clear March morning.
After flying northwest across the mud-brown plains of Missouri and Kansas, the Stratotanker, a 56-year-old flying gas station with the picture of Bugs Bunny and the words "Fill 'Er Up, Doc" painted on its nose, had nearly reached the rendezvous point.
Louden looked at Capt. Spencer Liedl, his co-pilot, and then prepared the plane for autopilot.
Meanwhile, at the tail end of the aircraft, Staff Sgt. Jamie Almquist lay flat on his belly, his chin planted on a cushioned chin rest, hands gripping the controls of the plane boom assembly while he gazed through a small window.
With a few minutes to kill, Almquist practiced moving the assembly, which mates the fuel line to the intake of client aircraft. Up and down, side to side, the boom moved in anticipation of the work ahead.