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The business of the boom

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., poses in front of his favorite aircraft, the KC-135 Stratotanker.  Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 for more than twenty years.  (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., poses in front of his favorite aircraft, the KC-135 Stratotanker. Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 for more than twenty years. (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., refuels an F-15 fighter during a flight over Hawaii.  Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years.  (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., refuels an F-15 fighter during a flight over Hawaii. Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years. (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., peers down at the receiving aircraft from the boom pod of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling flight.  Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years.  (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., peers down at the receiving aircraft from the boom pod of a KC-135 Stratotanker during a refueling flight. Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years. (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., reviews his checklist during a refueling flight.  Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years.  (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., reviews his checklist during a refueling flight. Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years. (Photo courtesy of Ray Lewis)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., poses with fellow boom operator, Tech. Sgt. Kenny Stewart, during a civic leader flight, April 1, 2011.  Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeff Walston)

Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis, a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, 931st Air Refueling Group, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., poses with fellow boom operator, Tech. Sgt. Kenny Stewart, during a civic leader flight, April 1, 2011. Lewis has been a boom operator on the KC-135 Stratotanker for more than twenty years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jeff Walston)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lewis spends the majority of his work days lying flat on his stomach, cruising at more than 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the surface of the earth, passing gas.

It isn't a typical nine-to-five job ... but then again, Lewis' particular field of expertise isn't exactly typical either.

Lewis is a refueling boom operator assigned to the 18th Air Refueling Squadron, a part of the Air Force Reserve's 931st Air Refueling Group at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. His "office" is a small bubble in the rear of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, known as the "boom pod." His job is to, quite literally, pass gas from the tanker plane to an awaiting aircraft. He controls the refueling boom that connects the two aircraft and allows jet fuel to be exchanged in mid-flight. It's Lewis' job, and the job of boom operators like him, to ensure that fighters, bombers, and cargo aircraft can make it to and from a destination without ever having to stop to refuel.

He's been doing the job for quite awhile now. In fact, Lewis has been a "boom" for more than twenty-two years, and he's loved every minute of it.

"It's the best job in the Air Force, hands down. I get the joy and benefit of flying without the responsibility of actually flying the airplane. I love having the controls in the back, working the boom and talking to the receiving pilots," said Lewis.

He may love the job now, but there was a time when Lewis believed he'd never see the interior of an Air Force jet.

FINDING A WAY TO FLY

Ray Lewis was crushed.

The fourteen-year-old had just been informed by his school career counselor that he would never realize his dream of flying for the Air Force, something he'd been yearning to do his entire young life.

"She told me my grades weren't good enough. She said I'd never be a pilot and that I need to find something else to do with my life," said Lewis.

For the son of a C-141 Starlifter crew chief, the idea of doing anything but flying was unimaginable. The young man had grown up on Air Force bases, watching the planes take off and land, and dreaming of being the one behind the stick. He was intent on joining the Air Force, but was now convinced that would mean a career spent on the ground, supporting the fliers instead of soaring through the air as one of them.

"I just naturally thought anyone who flew had to be an officer. That's what I had always seen, so that's just what I thought," said Lewis.

One evening in 1985, Lewis discovered a new dream.

"I was at the base theater watching a movie and I saw the alert aircrew in the back of the room. I noticed one of them was enlisted, and I asked him what he did on the plane. He told me he was the boom operator, the one who does the air refueling. I suddenly realized I could do that as an enlisted guy. And that was it. From the time I was 14, I wanted to be a boom operator."

At the age of 18, Lewis left for Air Force Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He had enlisted on an "open general" contract, meaning he could be assigned to any career in the Air Force. There was no guarantee he'd end up with a boom operator slot. In the end, it took a bit of luck to make that dream a reality.

"The father of a high school friend was a chief master sergeant. He knew I wanted to be a boom operator and he just happened to work for the Consolidated Base Personnel Office. He made a phone call on my behalf, and that was it," said Lewis.

Six months later, Lewis was a graduate of boom operating training ... and the rest, as they say, is history.

IN THE FIGHT

In two decades of flying the boom in both the active duty and Reserve Air Force, Lewis has had some memorable moments. One in particular stands out in his mind.

"My first-ever, no-kidding combat sortie was during Operation Desert Storm," he said.

Prior to the mission, Lewis said the aircrews slated to fly received a briefing during which they were told that 30% of them wouldn't be coming back alive.

"We were going up against what was at that time the 4th largest military in the world, and we fully expected that we would be taking losses," he said. "I was nervous, I was scared and I was excited all at the same time. I remember that sortie like it was yesterday. I refueled F-16 fighters. I did what I was trained to do. It was still fun, but there was such a build up to it. I knew for sure that I was in a war."

Serving as an integral part of the U.S. military's war fighting capability provides Lewis with ultimate job satisfaction.

"The fighters, the bombers, they can't get from where they are going into enemy territory to drop bombs and then get back home without us. It's hugely rewarding to refuel a bomber, knowing it's going to go out and take care of business. The knowledge I contributed to a bombing mission that got rid of some evil in this world, that's very satisfying," said Lewis.

He continued, "As a boom operator, you can't have a bad day at the office. I know I have to get gas into that B-52 so it can drop bombs on the bad guys, or else the good guys are going to die. Uncle Sam relies on us to do our job. I don't see that as pressure. It's just what I do."

Chief Master Sgt. Kathy Lowman, acting group superintendent for the 931st Air Refueling Group and a long-time boom operator, can speak to the importance of the boom's role.

"As a boom operator, you are responsible not only for the multi-million dollar aircraft in which you are flying, but also for the aircraft you are refueling behind you. We are what gets that aircraft to its target and back to base. We provide what it needs to allow it to continue its mission," said Lowman. 

"I LOVE THIS JOB!"

While he has a strong warrior spirit, Lewis' enthusiasm for his profession extends well beyond the combat zone.

"Even if it's a training flight or we're just doing pattern work, it's always a different experience. You're working with a different pilot, different weather conditions, and at different altitudes. It's never the same thing twice, ever. And that is just exciting," he said.

Some might balk at the idea of passing more than 970 gallons of fuel per minute between two jets flying 30 feet apart at 500 miles per hour, but Lewis said for boom operators, it's all in a day's work.

"Some people say it sounds crazy, but we booms get accustomed to what we do. You get to where the boom is like an extension of your body. Even with all the moving parts and dynamics so close together, at no point am I ever scared. It's really like a big dance. There's me and the receiving pilot, and we're working together to get the job done."

When it comes to his favorite planes in the Air Force fleet, it's no surprise Lewis is a bit partial to a particular model.

"The KC-135. It's a sharp, sexy looking airplane that has held the test of time," he said. "The fact that she's been flying for more than 50 years is awesome. That airplane is my second home. If I'm not home, the place where I feel safest and most comfortable is on that airplane."

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell once said, "Enthusiasm is a force multiplier." For a boom operator, being enthusiastic about the job means staying involved in the mission, which is a tremendous asset for the guys who work on the other end of the plane--the pilots.

Lt. Col. Thomas Wood, chief of standards and evaluations for the 931st Air Refueling Group and a KC-135 pilot with more than two decades of flight experience, said a good boom operator is one who is always connected to what is going on in the aircraft.

"There are times when you fly that you are doing things that really only pertain to the pilots and the booms don't have much to do, like when we are working on approaches," said Wood. "A good boom stays involved and works to give valid, useful inputs. That's what Ray does. We have crosswinds here all the time, and he's helpful with knowing what the crosswinds are and giving us that input. Having someone like that, who is engaged on the entire flight, makes it so much easier," said Wood.

Lowman said the energy and enthusiasm Lewis brings to the workday is good for every mission.

"There is absolutely no job to large or too small for him. He loves his job. He loves the passenger airlifts, the cargo flights, the air refueling, he just loves to fly. I enjoy working with him because of his attitude," she said.

For his part, Lewis said he considers himself lucky to have done the job he loves for this long ... and he has some advice for young people considering a career in the Air Force.

"Consider joining the Air Force Reserve. Look into becoming a boom operator. If you don't have a degree, this is such a great job. It's a great stepping stone if you have any aspirations of becoming a pilot," he said. "You can work toward your degree and still be learning the basics of flying, how to talk on the radio, and Airmanship. That gives you a tremendous head start if you do go on to pilot training."

After more than two decades working in the boom pod, Lewis said he'll never grow tired of passing gas for a living. To hear him tell it, the reasons behind his love of the job are really pretty simple.

"I love flying. I love refueling. I love the Air Force. I love my country. That's really what it all boils down to."