Refueling is sky tango for F-16 fighters

Sunday, April 6, 2003

OVER NORTHERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Its lethal payload of bombs already delivered, a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter refueled for the ride home, performing a delicate sky tango with a KC-10 tanker plane.

Master Sgt. Rod McClary, the boom operator controlling the pipe that feeds fuel to the jet, asked the other pilot whether the bombs reached the target.

"With these laser weapons, it's tough to miss," the pilot replied.

Just miles from the Iraqi border, the skies over northern Saudi Arabia were crowded with tankers and fighter jets. Their radios squawked code words and call signs as the United States and Britain unleashed an intense aerial bombardment Friday in the war against Iraq.

"You guys picked the right night to show up," another F-16 pilot said.

McClary is a 38-year-old reservist from Philadelphia whose regular job is in computer networking. His five-man tanker crew is based in Burgas, Bulgaria, with the 409th Air Expeditionary Group, flying their first combat mission of the U.S.-led strike.

Before McClary headed out, he donned his "good luck hat" -- a stovepipe green-and-white leprechaun hat with shamrocks. Then, just after the sky turned black, the fighters started arriving.

The F-16s approached with red and green lights on their wings, sweeping in from under the refueling plane at an altitude of 22,000 feet. Two other tankers below flew the same pattern at staggered altitudes -- waiting in a designated "box" of airspace for fighters.

Other refueling "boxes" have been designated along the Iraqi border.

McClary crossed the Mediterranean Sea, then headed over Egypt and up through Jordan to take his position.

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