Air refueling is supposed to be a very benign maneuver. But there is nothing ‘normal’ about being in a large aircraft just 6-18 feet away from another airliner sized jet. For the uninitiated, it’s more of a clench your jaw, squeeze your calves, and a ‘give it all you got’ type of moment. That apprehension leads pilots to tend to over-control the aircraft. New pilots will typically attempt to move too abruptly into the contact position. Their nerves and lack of experience mean that they’ll either get too close (forcing a breakaway) or fail to maintain a stable-enough position to grab a plug.
From experience, I can tell you that even the most generic, blue-skies weather air refueling between two large aircraft is an intense moment. Add weather, turbulence, darkness, a student boom operator, or a maintenance issue and the intensity of the moment skyrockets.
It takes discipline, focus, constant practice, and a conscious effort to ‘chill’ while air refueling. Many instructor pilots teach with a mantra that says, “Slow is fast and fast is slow.” Start stable, stay stable. While the mission requires refueling, it actually wastes more time to make a hasty attempt and fail than it does to just move towards the refueler at a steady pace.
So I get it, air refueling is hard…What’s your point?
My point is that the guys in these pictures have balls of steel. B-52 pilots and KC-135 pilots used to execute a ‘confidence’ maneuver known as wifferdills. They not only did it in a dissimilar KC-135, B-52 formation (which is challenging) but they did it IN contact, meaning that they were less than 20 feet away from each other with a boom connecting the two of them.
The maneuver was designed to build confidence. It was typically reserved for the instructor upgrade program. The philosophy was that air refueling wasn’t just about flying the perfect airspeed, holding a precise attitude, and heading.
As a KC-135 pilot, it was more important to be a stable platform. Any control inputs should be predictable. Any abruptness, or large adjustments would make the receiver’s job harder, if not impossible. For the B-52 pilot, it was important to teach upgraders that successfully air refueling meant following the tanker. They should do what the tanker does to get the gas. If the pilot successfully followed the tanker and avoided focusing on the horizon or other distractions, they would get the gas. To prove this, the instructors crews would coordinate a wifferdill. If the student stayed ‘on the boom’ during the maneuver, they would be surprised to recognize that they were slicing through the sky at sharp (but not heavily loaded) bank angles.
Do they still do this training?
Sadly, no. This training was done when the KC-135 and B-52 were both part of Strategic Air Command or SAC. SAC pilots took intense pride in flying excellence, professionalism, and discipline. Once SAC was dissolved, KC-135s moved over to Air Mobility Command in the early 1990s. The wifferdill ‘confidence maneuver’ faded with the command. Air refueling today is much more benign.