AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. - You see them in the skies of Spokane all the time, but who's inside those gray air tankers and what do they do?
Fairchild Air Force Base's new wing commander wants you to know the answers invited KXLY4 along on a training mission.
If you're ever lucky enough to go up on a tanker mission, it will probably blow your mind. To deliberately, yet safely get two planes so close together is a testament to the skills of our air crews.
When Fairchild's aircrews deploy overseas, their new home away from home is Qatar. It's where aerial refueling missions help the fight against groups like ISIS.
"Having just come from deployment overseas, I can tell you that it is our tankers that allows us to have coverage 24/7 over that battlefield," said Fairchild Wing Commander Col. Ryan Samuelson. "For both our allies and our U.S. partners."
Col. Samuelson said as our enemies become more elusive, operating out of several countries, fighters and bombers need more time to find their targets. Tankers give war planes the luxury of loitering over the battlefield.
"You can't deliver agile combat support anywhere in the world without air refueling," said Col. Samuelson. "It's is absolutely the backbone of our force. It is what makes our force operational."
Fairchild trains like it fights. Refueling the cargo jets that can deliver troops, armor and supplies halfway around the world without stopping.
"Before the tanker came around in 1956, planes were actually disassembled, shipped, and then reassembled where they were going to be implemented," said Senior Airman Tim Weber. "The tanker bridges that gap for the receivers to get to where they need to be and complete their mission."
After more than 120 combat missions, Weber is retiring from his boom operator duties.
This is his last flight, but he'll never forget how delivering fuel on time and on target helped save soldier's lives on the ground.
"Well, without tankers, the fighters don't have enough gas," said Weber. "They would just be on station for about an hour and have to return to base so they wouldn't be an effective tool on the battlefield if there weren't tankers out there refueling them."
The need for our air tankers is not slowing down. Last year, aerial refueling over southwest Asia set a new record and Fairchild aircrews were right in the middle of it.