KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Flying 22,000 feet above East Tennessee, Staff Sergeant Jacob Whitten watches a fighter jet pull up to practically spitting distance from his aging KC-135 tanker.
The fighter needs fuel and Whitten must thread the equivalent of a gas pump between the two planes to refuel the fighter jet.
"When you’re a few thousand feet up, moving a few hundred miles an hour, it can be tricky," he said. "But for the most part, the pilots I’ve worked with are amazing."
Whitten serves Tennessee's 134th Air Refueling Wing, based at Knoxville's Mcghee-Tyson Airport. When he's not in the tail of the KC-135, he works as a home inspector.
The squadron of tankers is an aging fleet, the newest is 57 years old. Despite their age, they provide an essential mission for America's air defense and missions overseas.
A fighter jet burns fuel faster than a Humvee going up a hill with a parking brake on — and its gas tank is small. On the average mission, a pilot may need to refuel 10-12 times.
"It makes it difficult for them to get across the ocean unless they have a tanker that can stay with them to get them across the ocean," Whitten said.
The tankers can carry up to 30,000 gallons of fuel, enough to fill the average car's gas tank roughly 2,000 times. When an F-16 pulls up behind the plane, it takes only 90 seconds to fill the fighter's tank at roughly 300 gallons per minute.
On Friday, the squadron trained alongside the 169th Fighter Wing of South Carolina's National Guard. The "Swamp Foxes" are frequent training partners, pilot Justin 'J-Dub' Wilson said.
Alongside their South Carolina counterparts, the 134th rehearsed for Saturday's flyover Neyland Stadium—flying low over parts of Downtown and Knox County.