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U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

Get Some ‘Love’ from the Utah Air Guard


Written by Shad West

Published February 8, 2007


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Photo by SPC Samantha Xanthos

The Thunderbirds showed why they are the nation's premier air demonstration

team. They approached the KC-135R from the rear in a tight formation.


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 feet apart.

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 the Thunderbirds.

“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.


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 90.1.

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 90.1.

“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,” Baker said.


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 Mexico.

“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 members.