I could see the ocean thousands of feet below and, just a few yards away, fighter pilots keeping watch on their instrument panels. “Yep,” I thought to myself, “this is definitely going on the top of my list.”
On Nov. 15, I went on a media flight aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker, where I watched as it refueled fighter jets in midair. When people ask why I’m a reporter, I sometimes list the top five cool things I’ve gotten to do in my job. This one easily ranks at the top and likely will for a long time to come.
We flew out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. As I drove onto the base early that morning, I wondered about the relationship between the Air Force and Johnston County, its next door neighbor to the west. My mom is from Fayetteville, and I’ve been to Fort Bragg a number of times; there, the city and army base are intrinsically linked. But Seymour Johnson is in Wayne County, and I wondered whether the base’s influence reached into Johnston.
I was one of five reporters on the media flight, and we started the day by talking with two colonels about the refueling program. The Air Force first received the Stratotankers in the 1950s, and plans are to use the fleet for at least another 20 years. We were tagging along on a refueling training mission that the military conducts about four times a year. Fighter jets and other planes from across the East Coast would be taking part.
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We made our way to the Stratotanker, took photos, met the crew and other Air Force personnel joining us and soon were off into the air. Taking flight in the plane felt much like a commercial flight except we were strapped into seats with our backs to the side of the plane, looking forward into the large cargo space in the middle.
But unlike in a commercial flight, once in the air we could walk around freely to any part of the plane, including the cockpit. The plane flew east until we were over the ocean, where we waited for the fighter jets to come. The inside of the Stratotanker looks like what you would expect from a cargo plane, like from the movies. But the back has what makes this plane so important: the boom that refuels the jets in midair.
To get to the boom, I stepped down into a lowered area, with room for three people to lay down on their stomach, facing away from the front of the plane. Clear plexiglass gave us a perfect view of the ocean below and of the fighter jets as they approached. The boom operator laid down in the middle with a chin rest keeping her head up, her hands on the joysticks below. She controlled the long mechanical arm that extended out to touch the jets.
The jets would fly up one at a time and match the Stratotanker’s speed, just about 20 feet away from us. The boom operator would then extend the mechanical arm out until, with a loud suction noise, it made contact with the refueling circle on the fighter jet. The fuel pumps so fast that the planes had to stay in place for only a few minutes. Then the fighter jet would break away from the Stratotanker, appearing from my view to simply glide away.
After the flight, I asked one of the Stratotanker pilots, Maj. Bryan Dickens, whether his job ever got boring. When on deployment and flying five to six missions each week, yes, he said, the job can get old.
But when flying only once or twice a week when he’s back on a base? “It’s really exciting,” he said. “I think we take it for granted sometimes how cool a job it really is.”
A huge impact
I later called Maj. Shannon Mann, commander of the 916th Force Support Squadron, to ask about the base’s relationship with Johnston County. She said Seymour Johnson has a huge impact on Johnston and other surrounding counties, and vice versa.
“We are taking those dollars that we make at the base and we’re spending those locally,” she said. About 100 people who work on the base live in Johnston County. Mann lives in Clayton.
“Some of us shop at the commissary, but when I need something, I go to the Walmart on Highway 70 or the Lowe’s Foods,” Mann said. “We’re definitely running that money back around into Johnston County.”
Also, some families choose to live in Johnston County because of the schools, she added.
The relationship goes both ways. The support from the surrounding counties and chambers of commerce is important for the base. They “have a big voice for us,” Mann said.
“I think it’s important to thank certainly all the employees and all the community leaders who have spent time from Johnston County getting to know our mission here,” Mann said. “Again, it’s not just the leadership of Wayne County that will keep this base alive and into the future; it’s the leaders of all of these counties and the leadership of North Carolina that will help us survive here in tough times.”
Building on that relationship is something Chris Johnson, Johnston County’s economic-development director, hopes to do in the future.
Military personnel who choose to live off-base often choose Johnston County towns, especially Princeton and Pine Level, which are closest to Seymour Johnson, and Benson, which is close to Fort Bragg, Johnson noted. Those families spend dollars locally.
Also, some Johnston County companies do contract work for the military and pay taxes here. Other companies in turn support those contractors. “They may not have a direct link to the base, but they may be supplying parts to another company,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the military’s presence in Johnston County is huge, and he hopes to grow it even more. “We’ve got more people in the military and support in the Fayetteville area than people realize,” he said.