Len Naugher’s office is 24,000 feet in the sky.
The career Alabama Air National Guard chief master sergeant is a boom operator on a KC-135R “Stratotanker” aerial refueling aircraft. His job is to operate the controls of the equipment that passes fuel to other aircraft.
Naugher is a member of the 117th Air Refueling Wing (117 ARW) of the Alabama Air National Guard based at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
He lies on his stomach looking out a small window at the rear of the aircraft waiting for a pair of F-15C “Eagle” fighter aircraft from the Florida Air National Guard to arrive.
Pilots Col. Doug Preston and copilot 1St Lt. Roberta Parker fly the tanker at 360 mph in a racetrack pattern over the Gulf of Mexico off Florida.
The fighter jets approach from the left. One breaks off and slowly approaches the rear of the tanker. Naugher talks to the pilot on the radio guiding him in. He extends the 60-foot refueling boom into a receptacle no bigger than a dinner plate on the fighter.
It only takes about a minute to pass the fuel to an F-15. A larger aircraft like a bomber or cargo plane may take 30 minutes.
The pilot breaks away from the tanker to allow his wingman to refuel. They repeat the process several times so they can get some experience.
Naugher flies about two times a week.
“This is my nine to five job,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine going to work in an office every day.”
Originally he was a mechanic when the unit flew RF-4C “Phantom II” reconnaissance jets. He stayed on the ground when the jets flew. When the unit changed missions to aerial refueling in 1994, he trained to be a boom operator. Now he flies on the aircraft.
“I’ve been to every continent except Antarctica,’ he said. “We fly all over the world.”
Naugher is passing along his 31 years of experience by training new crew members like Airman First Class Evan Harwood who is learning to be a boom operator.
There are about
1,000 people assigned to the 117 ARW including about 200 full-time employees. Also, active duty Air Force members also work with the unit to train with the experienced guard members.
The Alabama Air National Guard was formed in 1922, nine years before the Birmingham Airport was built. It was originally based at Roberts Field on the west side of Birmingham.
The KC-135 first flew in 1956 with the last one delivered to the Air Force in 1965. It has been upgraded and modernized several times.
There are more than 400 KC-135s still flying with about 180 of them operated by Air National Guard units.