Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
FREE Admission & Parking

Nerves of Steel: Boom Operators

Formally known as in-flight fuel specialists, enlisted “boom operators” play a key role in enabling aircraft to fly farther, faster. Operating aboard tanker aircraft, boom operators refuel aircraft in-flight to extend their range. This capability transformed the Air Force’s global reach during the Cold War and continues in importance today.

To initiate air refueling, the boom operator works closely with the tanker pilot and receiving pilot to guide each aircraft into proper position. Then, the boom operator uses “ruddervators” (rudders/elevators) to maneuver an extendable tube called a “flying boom” into the receiving aircraft’s receptacle. This is a delicate and potentially dangerous operation. Maneuvering the boom requires a steady hand, extensive training, and nerves of steel to make safe contact. At close range and high speed, even the smallest error could have a devastating impact.

Boom operators must work with a variety of aircraft, during day and night, in good weather and bad. No matter the difficulty, aircrews rely on them to get the job done. When not operating the boom, in-flight fuel specialists assist passengers, store and secure cargo, and support aeromedical evacuations.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, enlisted boom operators have played a central role in the Air Force’s crucial ability to fly anywhere in the world, nonstop.

Click here to return to the Enlisted Force Exhibit