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Ballet at 27,000 feet: Thunderbirds refuel midair ahead of Air & Water Show

Thunderbirds fly under the KC-135 Stratotanker in formation after refueling mid-air. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

When the KC-135 Stratotanker makes its passes at the Air and Water Show this weekend, it won’t drop jaws like the fighter jets cracking the sound barrier along Chicago’s skyline.

Sure, the 136-foot behemoth, with its menacing gun-metal gray finish, will dip daringly to within a few hundred feet of Lake Michigan. But with the body of a passenger jetliner, the KC-135 looks more like a plane you’d catch at O’Hare to visit relatives in Florida — not like one you’d see doing barrel rolls in “Top Gun.”

Just don’t tell that to the pilots of those flashier Air Force bombers.

Video by Maria de la Guardia

“A tanker pilot never has to buy a beer when he goes to the bar with other airmen,” retired Lt. Col. Herb Hunter said Thursday at the Gary/Chicago Airport. “Because he’s probably saved each of their butts more times than they can count.”

Since the late 1950s, KC-135s have been called into to refuel other jets in mid-air, with the fighters sidling up to the tanker’s belly while it aims in a tiny pump.

A Thunderbird refuels mid-air from a KC 135 Stratotanker as it flies over Missouri on Aug. 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
A Thunderbird refuels mid-air from a KC 135 Stratotanker as it flies over Missouri on Aug. 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Think of it as a quick stop at the gas station on the way to work — just 27,000 feet up in the air, at a steady pace of about 400 mph, with a pump gushing out 6,000 pounds of jet fuel every minute. Never mind the risk of catastrophe at the slightest misstep.

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“It’s a tremendous amount of concentration, and it’s a tremendous amount of teamwork,” Air Force Major Nick Krajicek said on the tarmac, shortly after getting a quick fill-up from the KC-135 somewhere over Missouri, along with five of his U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds teammates.

Krajicek said he’s made well over 500 air-to-air refuels during his 24-year career, including once when a KC-135 saved him from having to abandon an air support mission in Afghanistan in 2011 as his F-16’s fuel gauge leaned toward “E.”

“Slower is faster,” the pilot said. “You make very small movements, inches at a time. You can’t over-control it.”

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Illinois Air National Guard members took the Sun-Times along Thursday for an inside look at how the KC-135 and stealthier aircrafts perform the mind-boggling ballet five miles high in the sky.

Illinois Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jameson Liggett looks at the route map in the cockpit of a KC-135 Stratotanker over Chicago on Aug. 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
Illinois Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jameson Liggett looks at the route map in the cockpit of a KC-135 Stratotanker over Chicago on Aug. 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Master Sgt. Jameson Liggett served as a “boom operator” for the mission to refuel six Thunderbird jets — meaning it was his job to angle a 40-foot pipe from the undercarriage of the tanker directly into a fuel receptacle behind the bubble of each fighter jet’s cockpit, barely six feet behind the pilot’s head.

The KC-135 took off from Gary and met the Thunderbirds in the middle on their way from Las Vegas. From the sparse interior of the tanker, the ride felt like a normal if less comfortable commercial trip.

And then the F-16s showed up.

Thunderbirds fly alongside the KC-135 Stratotanker en route over Chicago on August 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times
Thunderbirds fly alongside the KC-135 Stratotanker en route over Chicago on August 16, 2018. I Maria de la Guardia/Sun-Times

Pirouetting into formation along the tail and wings of the KC-135 — about 20 feet away, close enough for a wave from your friendly neighborhood Air Force Thunderbird pilot — the fighter jets took turns easing below the tanker for a top-off.

Liggett manned the boom equipment from his stomach, peering out two dizzying, downward facing windows beneath the tail.

“A hell of a glass-bottom boat,” said Hunter, who flew the KC-135 in the late 1970s.

Herb Hunter speaks at Gary Airport on August 16, 2018, for the Chicago Air and Water Show. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times
Herb Hunter speaks at Gary Airport on August 16, 2018, for the Chicago Air and Water Show. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Liggett has been with the Air National Guard for a decade now, but he says he still gets butterflies in his stomach for the mid-air refuels.

“You’re getting yourself set in the chin strap and right away, you’ve got the best view in the whole world. It’s amazing,” he said. “You can’t help but say ‘Wow’ every time.”

Catch the KC-135, the Thunderbirds and more, Saturday and Sunday along the lakefront starting at 10 a.m.