Chicago Air and Water Show: Behind the scenes of the KC-135 Stratotanker


CHICAGO (SCS) — The roar of jets you hear downtown can only mean one thing: The Chicago Air and Water Show is back in full for the first time since before the pandemic.

You’ve seen the military jets twirl across the horizon, but do you know the plane that powers them?

CBS 2’s Marissa Parra had the ride of her life on the KC-135 Stratotanker, which is used to refuel other planes in the skies, keeping them airborne for up to 9 hours longer.

The KC-135 Parra was built in 1959.

The Stratotanker is much larger and perhaps less well-known than stars like the Blue Angels, but the KC-135 has a colossal job: serving as a hovering gas station, essentially a gas pump in the sky.

“It’s very tight and high precision, and it’s pins and needles every time you do this task, but it’s also very rewarding,” said the military aerial display team coordinator. , Bryan Allendorfer.

Allendorfer works for the Air and Water Show. His job is to bring all the jet planes to Chicago and fly them, but he also worked on the KC-135. He was what you call the boomer. He did what Master Sgt. Paul Fusek of Romeoville is doing it now.

Using a controller, lying face down, in very hot or very cold conditions, the pole vaulters guide the fueled prop from the back of the plane to other jets in flight.

β€œIt’s not really comfortable, but it’s technology from the 1950s when this plane was built, so the ergonomics aren’t the best, but we’re working with what we have,” Allendorfer said.

The way refueling is done is a bit different depending on the aircraft being refueled. Jets that are not Navy fighter jets require the most precision from the boom operator, who must guide the probe into the jet that follows.

But Navy fighter jets are built differently from others, demanding the most precision from the Navy fighter pilot; a long accessory on the back of the KC-135 that must be installed on the ground before takeoff, called a “drug”.

During our flight, an F-35 Navy fighter jet apparently slid into drugs (which looks like a basket attached to a hose) as it flew through the air, until the two “came into contact” .

They make it look easy, but it’s a tough operation made harder by flying over 300 miles per hour at over 15,000 feet (they prefer higher altitudes because the air is calmer).

The flight was both a moment of learning and reunion. In the back of the plane, on either side of Fusek, the current pole vaulter, were two people who had sat in his seat decades ago: Allendorfer and Faruza Kalaba. Not only did she once break the local glass ceiling as a pole vaulter in Illinois, but she’s married to none other than the voice of the Chicago Air and Water Show itself, Herb Hunter, who was also on board.

Moreover, Hunter himself flew these same planes. If you don’t already know, the world of aviation is small.

Unsurprisingly, the entire crew was made up of Chicagoland natives, making this a particularly meaningful Chicago air and water show. It’s not just a chance to show off their skills, it’s a homecoming for Major Patrick Burke.

It will be the first time the Schaumburg native has flown in the same show that inspired him to become the pilot he is today.

How proud is his family?

“Super proud,” Burke said. “I hear about it all the time, so ‘Hi mum!'”

Now when you see the jet fueling simulation from afar on the ground, you too will know what it looks like up close.

You can see the action at this weekend’s Chicago Air and Water Show on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at North Avenue Beach. Other good spots include Fullerton Beach and Navy Pier, where planes make their turns; and, of course, Gary Airport, where they land and take off.


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