‘It’s always spectacular’

By: Nick Mordowanec, | Advertiser Times Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle Farmington Press Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle Grosse Pointe Times Macomb Township Chronicle Madison - Park News Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal Rochester Post Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider Royal Oak Review Shelby - Utica News Southfield Sun Sterling Heights Sentry St. Clair Shores Sentinel Troy Times Warren Weekly West Bloomfield Beacon Woodward Talk | Published August 10, 2017

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — There is no shortage of military expertise in the 127th Wing of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

On Aug. 9, numerous servicemen provided members of the media with the ride of a lifetime: a nearly four-hour round-trip trek from the base in Harrison Township to a Grayling-Alpena training area and back.

Col. Jim Rossi and Col. Michael Urban were the flight’s pilots. Manning the cockpit was nothing new for either of them, as they have 28 and 14 years of experience, respectively, between them.

The mission involved flying an aircraft called the KC-135 Stratotanker, which in midair refueled two A-10 Thunderbolts and eight F-16 jets using a mechanism called a boom that “hangs” off the back of the plane and even has little wings.

The A-10s were built in the late ’70s, described as “world class, but old,” while the F-16s can travel twice the speed of sound.

During the refueling process, A-10s almost meet nose to nose, so to speak, with the KC-135, while F-16s swoop a bit under and to the side. The distance between the KC-135, a plane first deployed in 1956, and the respective planes was only about 5 feet — impressive considering the entire “boom operation” is conducted approximately 18,000 feet up in the air.

The boom operators on this particular mission were Sgt. John Karns and Lars Pyrzynsky. Karns has been an operator for the past 10 years, although he possesses more than 40 years of military experience. Pyrzynsky is a part-time serviceman who has worked at Selfridge for three years and fills in when possible.

Actually, 70 percent of Selfridge’s employees are part-timers. That includes civilians, airmen and volunteers in the National Guard.

“Basically, we take care of everything behind the cockpit,” Pyrzynsky said. “When we have passengers, we’re kind of like glorified flight attendants. But our main mission is to do the air refueling.

“We have the capability to carry passengers, cargo on top of doing the refueling. So, it’s a very multifunctional role I’m in.”

The way boom operators work, they lay in a face-down seat in the back of the plane. Imagine lying on your stomach, with numerous modules and buttons at your disposal, all while you’re staring into a hazy blue sky.

Once the jets are nearby, the operators move what are essentially joysticks up, down, left and right to move the boom mechanism. Their goal is to fit the boom into a hole that is less than 2 feet in diameter.

“It’s sort of like a funnel,” said Brig. Gen. John Slocum, commander of the 127th Wing. “When that boom comes in, it gets guided in so that it’s a pipe-on-pipe connection to allow us to transfer this fuel at a high rate. … It’s always spectacular to see a big airplane 5 feet next to another big airplane.”

Two seats — one on each side — are located next to the operator’s seat. Individuals can see the operator push the right buttons, extend the boom and hit the target.

Slocum said one gallon of fuel equates to approximately 6.7 pounds, with 850 gallons of fuel onboard the KC-135 — and it’s located beneath the feet of the passengers. Each of the A-10s and F-16s received about 5,000 pounds of fuel, he said.

Slocum has 33 years of experience flying F-16s, amassing more than 4,000 hours above the Earth’s surface. He spent time in Washington, D.C., and Arizona prior to coming to Selfridge, which he has called home for the past 2 1/2 years.

Air refueling is “the bread and butter” of what pilots do, he said, and this mission had a particular purpose.

Every August, an accredited joint training exercise called Northern Strike takes place, and it is growing. It includes members of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force from six different countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Liberia and Denmark. Latvia and Liberia are known as partnership program countries in terms of their ties with Michigan.

“There’s about 6,000 servicemen from all these different services, and they get together on this Alpena-Grayling range complex, where they go out and train anywhere from how to do medical work to how to do combat operations to dropping bombs,” Slocum said. “It’s all getting ready so if our state or nation calls us, we’re ready to do the job.”

The real-time mission was a precursor to Selfridge’s 100th anniversary, which involves the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 Demonstration Team as this year’s headliner during the event Aug. 19-20.