MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
When the sun sets over Tampa Bay, the lights come up over MacDill’s flight line.
While many prepare to put the kids down to bed and head that way themselves, the prestigious pilots of MacDill’s 50th and 91st Air Refueling Squadrons kick-off their shifts with the roar of the KC-135 Stratotanker’s engines.
Fueling the fight and maintaining proficiency in their craft is not a nine-to-five job, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots meet quarterly standards to flying and landing aircraft at night.
“Our pilots must complete two night landings at a minimum per quarter for proficiency,” explained Maj. Alan Herbol, the 6th Operation Support Squadron chief of operations. “We strive to not fly simply to meet the standard but to excel at staying professional, proficient aviators.”
Whether pilots are leaving the local area to complete an air refueling mission, or flying a pattern around the Tampa Bay region and practicing touch-and-goes, they test and train to improve their abilities with every take-off. Flying at night comes with risk though.
“Pilots face adversity in the air when the sun goes down; you take away visual cues and lighting and flying becomes more intuitive so pilots have to trust each other in-air and use their training to ensure a safe flight,” said Herbol.
Herbol explained that as is, the KC-135 is a very difficult aircraft to land and pilots have to fight visual disorientation at night, due to what’s called “black hole effects.” Due to low visibility, pilots can often feel as though they’re flying higher than they actually are, which can create massive risk upon their landing approach if they lower their altitude too much. By excelling in the standards set upon them for night-time operations, MacDill’s pilots greatly reduce these possible risks.
“Our pilots prove they are ready and capable to accomplish flight in a variety of conditions, no matter when or where the opportunity arises,” said Col. Travis Edwards, the acting 6th Air Refueling Wing vice commander. “Just like any job in our Air Force, pilots and boom operators must be confident in their abilities, but that confidence is built through training repetition.”
It may get noisy at times, but any patterns over Tampa’s residential areas is not intentional.
“We are flying patterns as much as possible and often with the large amount of air traffic in our region can cause us to change flight paths as needed,” said Herbol. “Operationally, we need to be prepared to fly, fight and win in any weather and circumstance.
When a KC-135 takes off from MacDill and banks off over Tampa Bay into the dark of the night, no matter if it is to accomplish a refueling or a training mission, the pilots of the 50th and 91st ARS cultivate their reputation for sustained excellence for years to come.