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Refueling an F-16 in the middle of the night looks scary as hell

This video doesn't show much—and that's why it's so damn scary: Two US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon jets approach a KC-135 tanker for refueling in the middle of the night. With no moonlight, the pilots and the fuel boom operator can only see the lights as they get closer and closer until they connect.


It must be so unnerving for everyone.

Any of our US Air Force or Navy friends want to comment?

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Refueling at night is really commonplace and is part of the initial qualifications a boom operator has to get to become mission ready. The KC-135 has lots of lights to help illuminate the air refueling because it's already dangerous, there's no need to make it even more dangerous by doing it in the dark (unless the mission dictates, which is rare).

Once your eyes get used to the darkness, the refueling looks more like this. There's a tail-mounted floodlight at the very tippy top of the KC-135's vertical stabilizer and a light mounted on the boom that shines on the nozzle, called the 'boom nozzle light'. They're pretty bright and once you're used to refueling with them, it just becomes another part of the job.

There are instances where the mission dictates using NVGs, this is called "SOAR", or "Special Operations Air Refueling". This is a special qualification that not every boom operator receives, since I know of only one base that trains their booms to do it. In SOAR, the tanker and receiver aircraft fly at low altitudes, 10,000 or lower, and they turn out their lights so that enemy troops can't spot them and open fire with AAA or MANPADs. The crews in this case wear night vision, but it's still riskier than normal night AR. If you've worn NVGs, even the spider-looking scopes with the binocular and peripheral vision, you know what it's like.

In this picture, you can see inside the boom's ice shield, the protective cowl that surrounds the nozzle when it's complete retracted. The big round thing in the middle is the always helpful nozzle. Just under it, you see the tube with a teardrop shaped opening, that's the boom nozzle light. The tube and the opening shape the light so that it's useful to the boom operator without blinding the receiver pilots (whenever we could help it).

Just above the nozzle, you can see a metal arm sitting off to the side and two tubes with wires on them. The two tubes house fluorescent blacklights which are supposed to illuminate the UV reactive paint markings along the side of the extending part of the boom.

I say, "supposed to," because they often don't work. The receiver pilots have never mentioned them, I certainly can't tell from the boom pod if they actually do anything, and many times the indicator lights in the control panel say they never turned on in the first place.

The metal arm between the two marker lights is the fuel dump actuator. When the fuel dump switch is activated in the cockpit, the boom automatically retracts, the actuator presses in on the nozzle, and then the pilots can pump fuel out of it in the event of an emergency.

This isn't the best picture of it, but at the very top of the vertical stabilizer, there's a small tube extending backwards with a clear window on the bottom. That's the tail mounted floodlight and there are 2 bright bulbs casting light onto a large swath of air behind the plane. It's pretty cool at night when flying through clouds, because then all you see through the window is brightly illuminated clouds. Then you turn them off and it becomes dark. Hours of entertainment from just two light bulbs.

If you have any other questions, let me know.