A day with the U.S. Air Force starts early. Arriving at an airbase in eastern England, my two Reuters colleagues and I know only a little about the day ahead: we will fly to an undisclosed European location on board a refuelling plane, accompanied by two F-22 fighter jets.
Waiting to board the aircraft we chat with some of the crew who will be flying us. They seem excited to have journalists around, taking down photos from the wall to show us the type of aircraft, a KC-135, we will be travelling on. They talk us through the history of their unit in its own small barroom where the walls are festooned with aviation memorabilia. Our liason officer for the day has baked banana bread for us.
On board there are huge shipping crates and a portable power truck, leaving room for only a row of red canvas seats down each flank of the plane. We were warned it would be cold, and it is. Noisy too. Some of the personnel travelling with us have already bedded down, wearing gloves and huddling under blankets. Confidence in my thermal underwear is waning.
After a delayed takeoff due to a hitch with the getting clearance for the flight plan, we are eventually up in the air and on our way. Romania is where we are headed; a chance for the United States to flex its muscles in eastern Europe and help NATO keep Russian aggression at bay.
We finally get the nod that something is happening, and even the sleeping, blanket-huddlers start to stir. Unbuckled and shuffling toward the window down the narrow gap between seats and crates (“Sorry, sorry, excuse me, pardon me”), I catch my first glimpse of the F-22 on our right wing. It seems ludicrously close.
At the back of the plane I’m able to hop down into one of two narrow dugouts in the floor. Slap bang in front of me is an F-22, connected to our plane by a narrow fuelling hose. All angles and hi-tech shimmering cockpit glass, it sways ever so slightly and occasionally wobbles: the only signs that it is travelling at around 300 knots over the European mainland. I make a mental note to Google how fast a knot is. The hose between the two planes is only about 10 meters long, I’m told later.
There are spare F-22 pilots on board who seem happy to take questions. I want to know if they fear being intercepted by Russian jets? “I suppose being cautious is the best deal. We’re not here to provoke anybody, we’re here to work with our allies,” says 26 year-old Dan ‘Scream’ Barina.
What does it take to be a fighter pilot? “Pretty much everyone is a Type-A personality. A go-getter.”
What qualities do you need to handle the prospect of a Russian jetting coming to say hello? “Probably just being cool, collected, not being rash.”
Finally, I cave. So why do they call you Scream? “You know the famous abstract painting? Well I look a bit like that.”
We land in Romania, but too late for the press conference arranged to announce the arrival of the F-22s. Fighter pilots mix with the local media and serious-looking Romanian forces. A loping brown dog and a stray kitten seem to have joined us, momentarily distracting from the $300 million worth of plane parked on the runway.
The pilots who were flying the planes we refuelled, are pretty quickly onto my game too. Friendly and enthusiastic about their mission, they want to know if we enjoyed our trip on board the refueling plane. I tell them it was exciting (true), and they seem genuinely happy.
Leaving the airfield, we pass a graveyard of Soviet-era fighter planes parked in overgrown bays. “Two Mig-29s and a Mig-23,” explains Scream. He and a colleague nearly miss their ride home after slipping off across a field to take a closer look at the once state-of-the art Cold War hardware.
We’re back on board after a 90 minute stop in Romania, and another chance to see the planes refuel. The boom that connects them is operated by Kijuan Amey. Lying face down and staring out of the back of the plane, he plays the ultimate game of Hook-a-Duck. Later, he modestly explains that the fighter pilots probably have the harder job.
Is it refueling a fighter transferable skill? I ask. “To be honest, there’s nothing that directly related to it other than probably video games,” he replies. What sort? Flight simulator games, he says.
I’m allowed into the cockpit for our landing at RAF Mildenhall. The two pilots sit in front of me talking to each other to their headsets, flicking switches and adjusting dials every few seconds. I count 26 dials in the space of about one sheet of A3 paper. An alarm sounds, and is quickly silenced. “Well, the horn works,” says one pilot. I’m not sure if he was joking.
We descend through snow (in late April), swaying in the gusting winds. The pilot’s movements on his controller become more erratic and don’t seem to correspond with what the plane is doing, but no one else is worried so neither am I. We touch down safely. “Thanks, that was great,” I say. “Yeah sure, but when the wing went right down at the end there, whoa,” replies the pilot, laughing. I’m still not sure if he was joking.