Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Earning Their Wings

Bucs Mark Anelli, Earnest Graham and Mark Jones took part in a fascinating military mission Friday, riding along on a midair refueling exercise over the Atlantic

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The flight crew of this KC-135 Stratotanker was increased by three Buccaneers on Friday

On Friday, several Tampa Bay Buccaneer players were sent on a mission, one very few people will ever experience.

Their mission, if they chose to accept it, was to refuel a C-17 cargo jet in midair somewhere over the Atlantic.

Did they accept? You bet! In fact, tight end Mark Anelli, running back Earnest Graham and wide receiver Mark Jones jumped at the chance to have a front-row seat during the refueling mission, which was conducted out of MacDill Air Force Base on May 19.

The Buccaneers arrived at the base early Friday morning and were given a briefing by the flight crew. The Bucs were shown a map of the flight plan and were given a full weather report so they would know whether or not to expect turbulence.

The Buc-heavy crew then boarded the KC-135 Stratotanker that would supply fuel to the waiting cargo jet. The KC-135 provides long-range aerial refueling support for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied aircraft. The massive jet has the capability to offload 6,500 pounds of fuel per minute. In addition to its refueling capacity, the KC-135 has a deck above the refueling systems to hold passengers and cargo. Depending on fuel storage configuration – for instance, the jet can carry fuel in its wings if need be – the stratotanker can carry up to 83,000 pounds of cargo or 57 passengers.

Once on board, pilot Mike Bernardi and co-pilot Alex Waxman went through a checklist with the flight crew to make sure all the gauges, lights and horns on board were in working order. Pete Vanagas, also a pilot, rode along to serve as the escort for the Buc visitors and to answer their many questions during the flight.

Once the plane reached its cruising altitude, boom operator Al Pelletier opened up the bay in the rear of the jet where the boom controls are housed. The boom simply acts as a large arm that can extend to different types of military planes when they pull up behind the KC-135 for refueling. The boom operator must lie fully extended on his stomach and control the boom with a joystick in each hand. A small window in the back of the plane provides the visual the operator needs to connect the boom and the refueling plane.

Each of the Buccaneers on board got a turn in the boom operator's chair. Pelletier instructed each player on how to move the boom up, down, left and right to follow the movement of the refueling plane.

"It felt like a video game," Graham said of operating the boom. "It was a pretty cool experience."

For about two hours, the KC-135 followed a flight plan north through part of Georgia and up to Charleston, South Carolina. Once over Charleston, the jet veered east out over the Atlantic and waited for the C-17 to arrive from an air force base in South Carolina.

When the C-17 was in sight, the boom operator assumed his position in the rear of the aircraft. Anelli and Jones were able to squeeze in the boom operation bay as well so they could view the C-17's initial approach and contact with the boom. The refueling mission was a training session for the crew of the C-17, therefore they practiced approaching the KC-135, making contact with the boom and backing away from the tanker several times.

After the refueling practice was complete, it was time to head back to MacDill. All the Buccaneers onboard agreed that they would never forget the experience.

"My favorite part was watching the C-17 approach us as the boom operator was getting ready to lower the boom for the refueling," said Anelli, who captured every moment of the flight with his camera and video recorder. "Just seeing how two large planes can be so close to each other – you could see the C-17 pilot's nametag, practically – was pretty cool."

The refueling mission allowed the Buccaneer players on board to experience first-hand one of the various roles the Air Force plays in supporting military operations.

"I would never have expected that the Air Force could do something like that," Jones said. "I tip my hat to them for what they do."

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