Photo by SPC Samantha Xanthos
The Thunderbirds showed why they are
the nation's premier air demonstration
approached the KC-135R from the rear in a tight
SALT LAKE CITY — Unlike Rex Grossman, the Chicago Bears
quarterback who threw a pair of interceptions in Super Bowl
XLI, Sunday, the Utah Air National Guard’s 191st Air
Refueling Squadron went 12 for 12 two days earlier in its
Big Game debut.
Two KC-135R Stratotankers passed thousands of gallons of
fuel to the United States Air Force Thunderbirds over the
skies of New Mexico and Florida Feb 2. The successful
completion of the 2,300 mile “drive” allowed the
Thunderbirds to blaze over Miami’s Dolphin Stadium during
the Super Bowl pregame show.
That fact wasn’t lost on Lieutenant Zac Love, who copiloted
one of the KC-135s.
“This was the first time I ever refueled the Thunderbirds,”
Love said. “They are the face of the Air Force and this
mission is quite a privilege. It was neat to see them that
close in a tight formation. They are great pilots.”
Members of the two flight crews tried to downplay their
involvement on Friday, however. They were the face of the
Air Guard, hosting deserving Airmen on one jet in the form
of an incentive flight, and Utah media outlets on the other.
Photo by SPC Samantha Xanthos
A Thunderbird receives fuel
through the KC135R boom at 25,500 feet above New
Mexico. When connected, the aircraft are only 25
In order for the demonstration team to fly from Las Vegas to
Miami without landing, the Air Force called on the
professionals from the 191st. With 33,000 gallons of fuel
available to offload, the tankers would keep the F-16s in
the air for the whole trip. F-16s can usually stay in the
air for two hours on a tank of gas.
The Thunderbirds rendezvoused with the tankers first over
New Mexico. The tanker pilots kept a constant air speed of
400 mph allowing the fighter pilots to each move in so the
boom operator lying in the boom pod could connect and supply
them with fuel.
Master Sgt. John Salazar was one of the boomers gassing up
“There’s a little more pride in doing the Thunderbirds,”
Salazar said. “The preparation in refueling is all the same.
The difference today was just a little more of ‘don’t
scratch the paint.’”
Salazar was glad the Utah media was on board to witness what
his squadron does on a daily basis.
“It was good to have the media with us,” Salazar said. “This
gives them the opportunity to see more than one type of
airplane and see what we do.”
KUTV, the Salt Lake City CBS affiliate sent reporter Katie
Baker along for the ride. Baker said she hadn’t done much
reporting on the military but was excited to spend the day
with the Utah Air Guard.
“I’ve always respected the military, but this just increases
the respect I have,” Baker said. “I think a lot of the
public thinks refueling is a simple thing, but it really is
a complicated process.”
Baker learned firsthand how difficult operating the boom
could be. She took a crash course from Master Sgt. Doug
Cline and was able to sit at the controls
briefly before the Thunderbirds arrived.
Photo by MAJ Hank McIntire
Master Sgt. Doug Cline explains the
process of refueling to Jennifer Winters, Long
Island, N.Y., a U of U student working for KUER FM
“I know it has to be a pain to have media up here, but we
want to just say thank you for letting us experience this,”
While the media soaked in all the aspects of what refuelers
do from the KC-135R cockpit and navigation center and Boom
Pit, the pilots soaked in the view of the red, white and
Blue Thunderbirds against the high-plained backdrop of New
“This one was fun. To just refuel the Thunderbirds and see
the paint jobs,” Capt. Dan Boyack said. “To know who they
are and to take them to the Super Bowl and be able to watch
it on Sunday and know you were a part of it. You couldn’t
ask for a better day.”
On Super Bowl Sunday the team’s F-16 fighter jets roared
over the stadium in their signature 6-ship Delta formation
at the conclusion of the National Anthem, flying 450 miles
per hour at an altitude of 500 fee. And back in Utah, the
flight crews watched the festivities knowing they were a
part of it too.
Photo by Shad West
After refueling, the Thunderbirds
took up formation off the Stratotanker's right wing
to allow great photo opportunities for Utah media