The boom operator or Boomer on a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft has his own window to watch the refueling probe as tanker and receiving aircraft travel at hundreds of miles per hour. Put this exciting “Boomer’s View” on your wall as a poster or framed print. Visit the PatriArt Gallery today.
Almost 22 years ago – Dec. 17, 1986 to be precise – RaileR Cantrell joined the U.S. Air Force. After spending four years as an administrative troop, he decided he wanted to try a different career field, but wasn’t sure what.
In 1990, while stationed at Hahn Air Base, Germany, after talking with retired Chief Master Sgt. Ron Cain, his mind was firmly made up. The chief was a boom operator who had flown missions in Vietnam, and it was he who was to change then-Senior Airman Cantrell’s life for the better.
Tech. Sgt. Cantrell, 351st Air Refueling Squadron completed his 6,000th flying hour as a boom operator Aug. 18 – 18 years later. He says he would have reached that milestone earlier, but he was involved in a serious vehicle accident left him with major injuries and a forced gap of three years with no flying.
He’s the only boom operator currently at RAF Mildenhall who has reached the 6,000 flying hours milestone.
“It felt like a weight off my shoulders, knowing I’d finally reached this mark,” he said. “I realized my goal was attainable, but it took a whole lot of work – and I did it in a plane that’s more than 50 years old.
“Adding this sortie to my tally was a great relief, but a good feeling, shaking hands with my crew members and thanking them for what they did.”
And just for once, because he was about to reach the 6,000 flying hour milestone, Sergeant Cantrell got permission to choose his own aircrew for the flight.
To help mark his achievement, he picked Maj. Kenneth Sierra, 351st ARS, as aircraft commander, Capt. Jeremiah Trawick, 351st ARS, as co-pilot (though unfortunately he couldn’t do the flight and was replaced by 1st Lt. Brian Morgan, 351st ARS), and Maj. Patrick Knott, 351st ARS, as navigator.
“The crew I was able to choose for my sortie was chosen because they are some of the finest officers I have known,” he said. “The aircraft commander, Maj. Sierra, and I have flown before and he is one of the best aviators I’ve known. The co-pilot was a last minute change, so it was great to fly with a young and upcoming aviator.
“‘I’ve only worked with Maj. Knott (on the ground) and we’ve been trying to fly before this, but never had the opportunity. So having him on board as well was like having an original Strategic Air Command crew of four aviators, working to keep the peace.”
It was the Air Force birthday, Sept. 18, in 1990, when the Woodstock warrior finished his training and went back to his unit (at Griffiss Air Force Base, Rome, New York). From then until December that year, he finished his qualifications and became a mission-qualified boom operator.
“My instructor (then-) Tech. Sgt. Scott Stern, told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘I will impart a year’s worth of knowledge to you, in this short amount of time you’re here,’ – and he did, literally. I was the only boom who would bring my books home every night to study and read, because I had to be in briefings every couple of days.”
Out of the 26 booms who started at the enlisted aeronautical undergraduate course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, only 13 finished, said Sergeant Cantrell.
On Dec. 7 – the anniversary of Pearl Harbor – he left to deploy to Iraq for the Gulf War.
“Over there, you learn more of the craft and the trade on your own. You learn what it is to be a boom operator; you don’t cut corners, you don’t cheat yourself out of what the checklist is telling you,” he said, explaining how he thought the experience helped him become better at his job.
To this day, the Mildenhall boom operator credits the retired chief master sergeant with helping him achieve that goal in the first place.
“To me, (retired) Chief Cain is a legend; he’s the only boom I know who flew 500 combat sorties in Vietnam – that’s quite an accomplishment. It was because of him I became a boom operator,” the Woodstock, Ga., native said.
Sergeant Cantrell is the last original member of the 351st ARS, when the unit was set up at RAF Mildenhall in 1992, along with the 100th Air Refueling Wing. He was first stationed here from September 1992 to October 1995.
“Because of RAF Mildenhall’s history, we had the nose art put on all the planes; we had the Box D on the plane and we had a letter signed by the Queen (Elizabeth II) so we could put the crown (which is part of the Royal Air Force patch for RAF Mildenhall) on the tail – you can’t put the crown anywhere unless you had permission.
“Along with the crown and the station patch, there are nine white stars on the tail flash which signify the nine original jets we brought over here in 1992,” he said. “When we do the static displays for base tours, I like to go and talk to some of the guys, because I have a history background. I’ve always wanted to come to England and studied World War II aviation in the European theatre, so to come over here and actually meet so many of the World War II veterans from the RAF is something I’ll never forget.
“I love doing the tours – especially with the RAF guys – because they are all very knowledgeable, and I love listening to their stories. I’ll never forget when one of the guys got to talking about one of the missions when they (as RAF pilots in World War II) went into France to free a lot of the (prisoners of war).
“To see the guy was amazing,” he added. “He was looking at me and all of a sudden he got that stare, and he was running that reel right back in his mind, playing that whole tape. He was sitting there telling me what was going on as he remembered flying the plane to rescue these guys, and he was telling me their names.
“I remember the movies they’ve made of it, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh – that was him!’ So to meet them is an honor.”
During his first nine years as a boom operator, Sergeant Cantrell spent four-and-a-half years “on the road.”
“I’ve gone almost completely round the earth – I’m about 3,000 miles away from doing that,” he said.
While racking up his 6,000 flying hours, he’s been to 48 states in America and to more than 65 countries. “Only the Thunderbirds have got me beat,” he laughed.
In July 2001 he became a school house instructor at Altus Air Base, Okla., and was there until September 2005, where he became a master instructor and was able to impart his knowledge to other, more junior enlisted people wanting to become boom operators.
“You’re able to mold these guys into becoming boom operators by showing them how to do refueling in the air. We had simulators, but they are nothing like doing it for real – being in the back of a plane going 300 to 400 miles per hour, showing your student how to (hook up the boom and refuel a plane); there’s nothing like it.”
The 351st ARS technical sergeant said when it came time for the flight that would push him beyond his 6,000th flying hour, he was nervous. “But the crew I had that day was the best I’ve flown with. We were refueling F-15s from RAF Lakenheath, then we headed up to Scotland. The weather was bad, but as we broke through the cloud and saw the scenery, it was just beautiful.”
He hit 6,000 hours at 12:48 p.m., over Newcastle, when the crew was heading home to RAF Mildenhall.
As a boom operator, he can’t put in any flying hours without the aircraft commander and co-pilot, but nowadays, with the Pacer CRAG navigation system, real navigators don’t get to fly much any more. But for the milestone flight, he made sure there was one on board he could rely on.
“RaileR and I have worked together for a while on the ground; I was honored when he asked me to fly with him,” said Major Knott, navigator on the flight. “I know he misses flying with a navigator, and I was more than happy to oblige. Of course, I’m never going to pass on an opportunity to pour ice-cold water down a crewmember’s back as he goes down the crew entry chute!”
“There are very few people in the Air Force who have the privilege and opportunity to accrue such a large number of flying hours,” he added. “It definitely says something about RaileR’s commitment and ability, and this flight was one of the highlights of my assignment here at Mildenhall.”
Along with praise for his crew, Sergeant Cantrell knows there are more people who have made all this possible.
“The maintainers should take a lot of the credit – without them we’d just be a static display,” he said.