The picture at the end of this story was shot in Grad School – Ohio University, sometime around 1988 or so.
I had a friend and classmate, Johnny Crawford, a wonderful shooter from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was truly a lot of fun to be with – but he had this one habit that just got to me after awhile… it was his pension for saying, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve…” – and then fill in the blank with something that he’d done and he knew I hadn’t.
Understand, he wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t being mean, he was just telling me how cool it was to have been able to do something he had done, and, in his eyes, I hadn’t lived till I’d done one of those things.
Well one day he says, “Tom, you ain’t lived till you’ve shot F-15’s bein’ refueled.” – now of course I knew that he wasn’t talking about F-15’s being refueled on the ground, he was talking about that complicated aerial ballet that means you’ve got two airplanes flying around 250 – 300 mph within about 40 feet of each other, pumping highly refined kerosene from one to another at a rate of about 6,500 pounds a minute. This is enough fuel in one minute to run your average family car for a year.
Eventually I got a little tired of never having lived – so I needed to figure out where I could find a refueling base, because that’s where I’d need to go to get onto a KC-135 refueling plane to take that shot that was going to ensure that I lived. I went to the library, and checked out a book about the military, and it gave me the location of all the bases in the United States. And funny thing, but there was a base with a KC-135 wing 68 miles away, the 121st Air Refueling Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard.
Now anyone who knows me knows I am just plain dangerous with a telephone. My wife says I can talk to anyone, and sometime I just end up sweet talking my way into things that even I end up baffled at once everything’s all said and done. She once complained that I could get into a 20 minute conversation with a telephone operator. (She was wrong… it was 45 minutes, and I did, actually, the telephone operator used to be an air traffic controller when Reagan was presi – well, that’s not important right now). So about 3 telephone calls later, I’m on the phone with the PAO (public affairs officer) of Rickenbacker Air National Guard base, in Columbus, Ohio. I explain to him that I’m a grad student in photojournalism at Ohio University and that I’m working on a story on the Air National Guard (partially true, well, I was starting it – and a picture was worth a thousand words, right?) and was wondering if there was any chance of getting up on a refueling mission to take some pictures. So – after talking about that and security and stuff for a bit, he suddenly said, “How’s next Tuesday?”
It had to be harder than this…
It just had to be.
Nope. Tuesday it was…
Plane took off at 10:00. We’d be refueling some Missouri Air National Guard F-4 fighters who were on a training mission. I had to be there 2 hours earlier, which meant I had to leave an hour before that, and so on. I borrowed a car from a friend and found the airbase, talked my way into see the right people, made the right introductions, signed the right paperwork, and out the door I went, still completely baffled… It just had to be harder than this…
One of the things to understand about military planes is that they are generally not built for comfort, so the plane was loud. This being an Air National Guard plane – the same folks had flown this same plane for years, so to them it wasn’t much different than you or I driving down to the store to get a quart of milk. However, they’re going a little faster, they have 4 engines pushing them along, and the store’s a lot further away. At one point, I was up in the cockpit and the navigator did some calculating, and noticed that if we continued at the rate we were going, we would be late to meet the planes we were to refuel, and since we were the only gas station around, us being late could easily mean those flying jet fighters would fly about as well as crowbars, and that’s not good. So he saw we were going 300 mph, and told the pilot to bump it up to 330. The pilot reached up and wrapped his hands around the 4 throttles and – well, ‘bumped’ them up a bit. I had no idea a plane that big, could accelerate that fast at that speed. I was watching the airspeed indicator, and we went from 300 to 330 in a blink. I was very glad I’d been holding onto something when he did it or I would have ended up in the back of the plane.
We got to the refueling zone – and I was told that the way the refueling is done, is that the pilots of the tanker, and the pilots of the planes needing the fuel fly directly at each other, the tanker flying 1000 feet higher. When they get close, they both head in the same direction – so, say the tanker I’m in is flying east. The planes needing the fuel are flying west, toward each other, and at a given point, everyone heads north, so that the F-4’s are below and behind the tanker. Our call sign was Pearl 07. Theirs were Misty 41 and 42.
The weird thing, for lack of a better word, about all this is that it was happening in three dimensions. I mean, if you’re here on the ground, and you point to something, your arm is generally parallel to the ground or close to it, because whatever you’re pointing at is usually on that same ground, or close to it. When I saw these planes – I was in the back of thfe tanker, looking out the back – and they were swooping in from the right, and they were off to the right, and down. Not just ‘over’ but ‘down’. One of the planes was leaving what looked like a white smoke trail, and I heard over the radio, “Pearl 07, Misty 41, I’ve got a fuel leak, returning to base…”
I don’t know about you, but a fuel leak you can see at 300 miles an hour must be a pretty significant fuel leak… He left.
Misty 42 came closer – into what they call the pre-connect area in the back of the plane, and just stayed there for a bit – I was amazed at how big the thing was, and had the widest lens I had on my camera (a Nikkor 24mm ) – I was framing the shot when Gus (the boom operator) said, “Misty 42, forward 50” – meaning he needed to come forward 50 feet to get into the area where the boom could connect. Now I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting much acceleration out of that plane – I mean the plane can go twice the speed of sound, for crying out loud – but when he came forward that 50 feet, it was like he’d been shot out of a cannon, and then he stopped, parked right where he needed to be. Somewhere in there, just before he hooked up I reflexively squeezed off a shot, and that was the only shot I got that was worth anything – after that he was just too close.
He took 3,000 pounds of fuel, I don’t know why I remember that. He wasn’t there very long, and then, since Misty 41 had already left, Misty 42 peeled off in ways I’ve only seen in movies – and there just isn’t a comparison to seeing it in real life, as opposed to seeing it on a screen, where, no matter how much they try to show the three dimensions of what’s happening up there, it’s still a two dimensional screen. It just doesn’t cut it. It was so, incredibly, cool.
We turned back east and headed back over Illinois, Indiana, bits and pieces of Kentucky, and finally made it down out of the wonderful sunlight, down through the clouds, and into a rainy Ohio afternoon.
We debriefed, I headed back toward Athens in my borrowed car with an exhaust leak, and stopped at a Burger King on the way to get a late lunch while I had the color film developed next door. What I didn’t know is that this particular film developing process didn’t use fresh chemicals for each batch of film. They used them until the film didn’t come out good anymore, and then changed the chemicals.
Guess whose film was the last one through that batch of chemistry? The prints just didn’t look quite right. It turned out that the film, though developed, was simply not printable in color, the three colors (cyan, magenta and yellow) didn’t develop at the same rate – and there just wasn’t a way to color balance all of the colors at the same time. After a lot of thought and frustration (considering what I’d gone through to get this picture) I ended up out of pure frustration printing it in black and white.
This, surprisingly, was a dang good idea…
Of course, by now it had been a long day, lots of driving, lots of flying, and because of the car, lots of carbon monoxide, and now I had to go to the darkroom on campus to print the pictures. Of course, it was always a social event because there were 50 enlargers in the darkroom, and everyone was working on their own images, and every now and then, you’d go out into a finishing area and look at them in white light instead of the orange safelights, to see what the thing really looked like, wash it off, spot correct dust, etc…
…and, if you had a particularly good one, you might find yourself examining it a little longer out there where other people could see it, if you know what I mean…
One of the things in that original image was that there was this huge black area in the bottom right of the picture, part of the inside of the plane that that wide lens caught. I was trying to figure out how to make the picture work without cropping too much, and yet that black area just sucked your eye right down there when one of my classmates walked up and saw the picture.
“Wow! Cool picture! Who take that?” (he was from China, and this is how he talked)
“No, Tom, you not take that picture, don’t joke… Who take that picture?”
“Seriously, I did.”
He could see I wasn’t joking – honestly, by that time, I was too tired to joke.
“Okay, fine… Where you take that picture?”
… but I wasn’t too tired to string him along a little and mess with him…
“Missouri.” (understand, Missouri is three states west of Ohio, easily a day’s drive)
“Missouri? No, Tom… You joking again. Where you take the picture?”
“Okay, I’ll be more specific… 26,000 feet above Fredericktown, Missouri.”
There was a look of consternation on his face, and finally resignation as he realized I wasn’t kidding.
“Okay Tom, you not joking this time… When you take the picture?”
– This one was like feeding a straight line to a comedian, and the only thing I could do was the last thing he’d expect.
I looked at my watch.
His eyes got real big, then he just threw up his hands and gave up. The thing is, at the time he asked the question, I’d taken the picture about 6 hours ago – so the most logical thing to do was to look at my watch and find out how to answer his question.
I was so hoping Johnny would come by so I could tell him I’d lived. He did, later – but the reaction from my classmate was the best.
That said, below is the shot of Misty 42.
…and just recently I found a video that someone else had taken that’s pretty accurate for what it was like.
The above shot would have been taken just before the video starts.
PS – years later – I got back in touch with him and sent him this story.
His response: “Tom, you have Lived!”