A day in the air with a crew from Fairchild Air Force Base

(10/11/16)

Most days Shawna Sims comes to work, she gets to fly.

Since joining the Air Force seven years ago, Sims has become a “boom operator,” performing one of Fairchild Air Force Base’s main objectives.

Sims works a “boom” – or a large contraption attached to the back of a Boeing KC 135 Stratotanker – to refuel planes while they are still flying around 500 mph in the sky.

“The coolest thing about my job is I get to extend so many missions,” explained Sims at a media tour on Tuesday. “In a way, I get to touch all these other missions, even though I’m not doing them.”

But seven years ago, Sims did not have it as easy. The single parent of a young child, she was working a minimum wage job and decided something had to change.

“I just wanted to be able to provide for my son,” she said. “I didn’t want to be on food stamps or anything like that.”

So Sims joined the Air Force, and became one of the approximately 150 boom operators – both guardsmen and airmen - stationed at Fairchild. In total, about 5,000 airmen are stationed just southwest of Spokane.

Sims, along with several other officials, brought the media onboard for a training mission Tuesday. After a slight delay and switch to a different plane, they were off.

The roar of the engines slightly dulled by the standard-issue ear plugs, they flew south towards Oregon to refuel two F-15s fighter jets. Unlike normal passenger jets, there are only a few small windows on a KC 135.

Undoubtedly, the best seat in the house is the boom operator’s. He (or she) lies on his belly in the aft of the plane, looking down on the world as we fly above it.

It is his job to move the boom so it can safely attach to another plane while still hurtling through the air.

It is not an easy job to come by. To be certified, would-be boom operators must train for almost a year.

“I wanted something more,” explained Sims. She made the switch from air traffic control to being a boom operator a few years ago.  She has been stationed in Spokane for about three years.

“We really like being here,” said Sims. “It’s a beautiful location, town and state.”

Besides refueling aircraft on the move, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing – the host unit at Fairchild – is also responsible for passenger and cargo airlifting. Crews will help worldwide with air medical evacuations, in addition to refueling whatever units are “out and about,” as Colonel Ryan Samuelson put it.

Of course, as with any active duty troops, Sims does get sent abroad.

“All the crazy things happen when you’re deployed,” she said. Sims recalled one night she was refueling an aircraft and had to coach a pilot verbally to connect with the boom because he couldn’t see.

Another mission had her refueling French fighter jets the day after the Paris bombings as they retaliated in Syria

But for all the excitement of serving, Sims said sometimes it can be tough.

“You have to move around a lot and meet all these people and build all these little families and then leave,” she explained. “But then in the end you look back and you’re kind of proud.”

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