Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2013.
From 22,000 feet above New Bern, you can see Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Little Washington. You can see the Pamlico Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and Goldsboro, too. You can see just about all of eastern North Carolina down there in the flat space below. From here, you can point to them all at the same time. Up here, distance becomes relative.
“Pretty cool, huh?” says Maj. Ashley Cowan, sitting in his copilot chair in the cockpit of a KC-135, a massive refueling tanker in the sky.
The view is indeed cool. The land spreads out like a mat, and any changes in the topography are indecipherable. From up here, North Carolina looks like it does on a map, its ragged edges filled in by water. But even more cool is what’s about to happen.
Just off the wing of the KC-135 is a fighter jet — an F-15E Strike Eagle. It’s a sleek jet, one of 95 based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, and it needs a little fuel. The F-15E pulls up behind the KC-135, which is piloted by Major Cowan and Lt. Col. Greg Lassere. The pilots of the two planes talk through headsets and align their aircraft. The F-15E pulls up directly behind the tanker — closer and closer. Then a boom operator in the back of the KC-135 maneuvers a 20-foot arm, via a joystick, into place, attaching it to the fighter. Within seconds, the tanker shoots high-octane JP8 jet fuel into the tank of the fighter plane, completing the transfer.
The exchange is remarkably precise at 400 miles per hour, but it is a surprisingly ordinary occurrence above eastern North Carolina. Nearly every day, planes based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base conduct missions high above the ground. They engage and refuel and detach. Also, someone on the earth becomes an unknowing target. Pilots in fighter jets routinely select a car or bridge or boat and practice setting their sights. Your car could be a practice target, but you’d never know.
That under-the-radar quality is indicative of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina’s sometimes forgotten military installation. In a state known as the most military-friendly state in the country, Seymour Johnson can be overshadowed by the larger Marine base at Camp Lejeune and the much larger Army post at Fort Bragg. But for the people of Goldsboro and the Air Force, this small base is central to many missions — from local economic prosperity to wide-sweeping air tactical preparation.
It is a small base, but when you’re here, size is relative.
The F-15E pulls away from the KC-135. The tanker’s tail reads “First in Flight,” a tribute to the Wright brothers. They started this whole flying business somewhere on those Outer Banks, way down there.
Most of what happens in the Air Force actually happens on the ground.
Of the more than 350,000 men and women in the Air Force, only 2,731 are fighter pilots in cockpits. If a wheel goes flat, the Air Force has a team of tire men. If an engine sputters, there’s a team of mechanics. Most of the Air Force never flies.
Seymour Johnson is home to two types of airplanes: the F-15E Strike Eagle and the KC-135 refueler. The fighter jet was built in the late 1980s and was one of the primary reasons the United States asserted quick control in the first gulf war. Seymour Johnson has 95 Strike Eagles, more than any other base in the country. The entire 4th Fighter Wing is based around those 95 jets.
KC-135 refuelers are operated by the 916th Air Refueling Wing, made up of mostly Air Force reservists. Sixteen KC-135s call Seymour Johnson home, but often a few are deployed overseas.
Whichever the plane and wherever it’s going, it all starts on one 11,000-foot, land-based runway carved out of the heart of Goldsboro.
“On a really windy day,” says Maj. Shannon Mann of the 916th, “you can smell Wayne County.”
Wayne County is one of the state’s leading agricultural counties. From the sky, what appears to be a few hundred yards across the runway sits a massive farm housing Perdue turkeys. It’s more like 20 miles away. Wilber’s, one of the state’s most famous barbecue joints, is right under the planes’ approach. It’s bound to be the only barbecue joint where one can eat a pulled-pork sandwich next to the wood-fired pit where it was cooked and see the underside of a fighter jet.
Unlike in Fayetteville and Jacksonville, the military here is at the heart of the town.
“It’s a different breed of individual,” says Mayor Al King, a retired Air Force major. “What our Air Force is required to do, these are technicians. They’ve worked their whole lives to get here.”
Central Michigan University has a campus here, as does Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Starbucks offers free coffee to servicemen, and on any given day at East Coast Wings, you’ll see a community member buying lunch for a man or woman in uniform.
In downtown Goldsboro, a memorial honors area veterans who died in a foreign war. At the center is a massive map of Wayne County carved from granite that marks each township.
The area suits the Air Force for many reasons. At many other bases, planes need to travel far to reach practice airspace. Here, the jets can be there in 10 minutes, and it’s only a few more to a bombing range in Dare County.
The 4th Fighter Wing’s history goes back further than any other fighter wing in the Air Force. It began as part of Great Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II. Germans occupied much of the British airspace until a group of Americans joined the British and helped regain control, turning the war against the Nazis.
In the Korean War, the 4th Fighter Wing claimed 500 of the 800 Korean MiG jets shot from the sky. Later, in the 1960s, famed pilot Chuck Yeager served as a commander here.
The pilots of the 335th squadron of the 4th Fighter Wing wear patches on their arms every Friday to honor the Royal Air Force roots. The 335th also claims to be the world’s leading MiG killer. They are known as the “Chiefs.” At the 335th headquarters at Seymour Johnson, Nazi emblems painted along the top of the hallway walls signify the number of Nazi airplanes shot down during WWII. Red stars mark the number of MiG jets shot down in Korea. Also on the wall, in black paint, is the number 218. A living total of deceased planes.
Maj. Tom Moore flies with the 335th. Moore is a weapons systems officer, or WSO, or “wizzo,” as the pilots say. In more plain terms, of the two pilots operating the F-15, Moore flies in the back.
A lanky 33-year-old with stellar 20-12 vision, Moore has wanted to be a pilot ever since his father was medically disqualified for being too tall. Moore graduated from Illinois State then went to Embry-Riddle to study aeronautics while enlisted. He enrolled in the Air Force’s officer training school and worked his way up to fighter planes. He’s done three tours in the Middle East and is scheduled to return in March.
Every morning, Moore arrives at work at 7 a.m. and listens to an intelligence briefing from places like Syria and Yemen. Then he either spends the day flying or preparing for his next flight. On flying days, he takes off around 10 a.m., performs a training mission for two or three hours, then comes back to debrief. He rarely leaves before 7 p.m.
“Yeah, I’ve been wanting to fly since I was 9; and yeah, this is a dream,” Moore says. “But it’s work, too. It’s not all planes and Corvettes.”
The pilots, though, do walk with a sports-car swagger. One morning, Major Moore and his front-seat pilot, Capt. Kendall Chudy — who is part of the less than 1 percent of the Air Force who achieve fighter pilot status — walk from headquarters to their F-15 like a couple of Top Gun cast members. Who could blame them? The F-15 is equipped with laser-guided bombs that can change direction in midair, missiles that seek heat, guns that shoot bullets the size of footballs. And they’re really fast. Everything about their jobs is undeniably, tactically, and technically cool.
The pilots even get nicknames, or call signs. Captain Chudy is Digger. And Major Moore is Gosling. After checking over the plane for 30 minutes, Moore says, “Alright, I’m gonna go fly now,” and climbs aboard. Out of the back of the plane, heat stretches at least 75 feet, hazing the scene beyond it like a watercolor impressionist painting.
As the jet pulls out of its parking spot and onto the taxi runway, Moore looks out the window and pumps two fists. Then he raises his hand to his helmet and salutes the crew on the ground with a quick swipe. And he’s off. Just like in the movies.
Sometime later, Moore lands. And he has a few more hours of work to do. As he’d said, it’s not all planes and Corvettes. He drives his car from the 335th headquarters to the main base headquarters to debrief. That car, by the way, is not a Corvette.
It’s a Jaguar.
Six years ago, the 4th Fighter Wing performed the flyover at former President Gerald Ford’s funeral in Washington, D.C. The funeral was historically long, and the waiting F-15Es from Seymour Johnson began to run low on fuel.
Within minutes, a KC-135 was launched from Seymour Johnson. The big tanker flew north and refueled the jets midair, and they finished the mission.
As cool as the F-15s are, they would be scrap metal without fuel. The KC-135s are sort of legendary in the military. Built in the late 1950s and early ’60s, they’re still expected to last another 50 years. Imagine that — a vehicle built to last a century. The Air Force upgraded the engines in the mid-1980s and has improved the radio technology, but the KC-135 is largely still the same hulking load of flying aluminum and fuel it’s been for decades. Each piece of the plane comes with an instruction manual. And Air Force mechanics in the hangars are experts in replacing each part, same as they would have 50 years ago.
This one piloted by Major Cowan and Colonel Lassere has four turbo fan engines that can generate more than 20,000 pounds of thrust each. You don’t know what that means, but you know this: The plane weighs 120,000 pounds and can carry 200,000 pounds of jet fuel, meaning the engines can make 320,000 pounds defy gravity.
The KC-135 has 10 fuel tanks, three in each wing and four elsewhere in the body of the plane. All of this metal and power and fuel results in your soaring high over New Bern. You can see Cape Hatteras from up here.
“And there’s our runway,” Major Cowan says, pointing toward Goldsboro.
Cowan grew up in Wilson, 20 miles north of here. He went to North Carolina State University. His wife attended Wake Forest and works at Duke. They live in Chapel Hill. “We’ve got the state pretty well covered,” he says. Cowan is a reservist, and when he’s not flying here, he’s a commercial pilot for AirTran. Several days a week, he drives to Goldsboro and does this, flying a KC-135 and refueling F-15s for the fighter pilots. And that’s pretty cool, too.
Aside from Major Cowan and Colonel Lassere, there’s one more important set of eyes in the plane, and they belong to Master Sgt. Lori O’Connell, an 18-year Air Force veteran. She operates the boom telescope in the back. She lies prone, holding a joystick, maneuvering the boom toward the F-15, which needs fuel. She’s wearing a headset, and she’s talking to her pilots and the fighter jet’s pilots. She’s the link.
Sergeant O’Connell’s official job title is boom operator, but she seems to run everything. She runs down the preflight checklist, telling you where the airsick bags are (in a pouch) and where the men’s toilet is (in a tube). She also handles tens of thousands of pounds of fuel. She’s humble and self-deprecating. She jokingly follows pilots around base singing the lyrics to “Danger Zone,” the Top Gun theme song.
“All pilots like to have theme music,” she says. “So we booms stand behind them and sing it.”
Right now, Sergeant O’Connell is not joking with the pilots. The F-15 pulled too close. She shakes her head and pulls the boom off the jet. She shouts into her headset, ordering her pilots to break. And somewhere over the Pamlico Sound, they abort. Cowan and Lassere hit the throttle “to the stops” to speed away. The F-15E finishes its practice mission on low fuel.
Meanwhile, the KC-135 heads home to the runway in Goldsboro, 22,000 feet down and just over there. The plane drops quickly … 10,000 feet … 9,000 … 8,000. In the final 500 feet, it plows through smoke remnants rising from Wilber’s Barbecue, drops over an empty farm field, and touches down.
As the plane slows, Major Cowan and Colonel Lassere open their cockpit windows and hang their arms out, and they drive down the pavement letting in some of that Wayne County air.
Michael Graff is the writer-at-large for Our State magazine. Find more of his archived stories here.