Mike Raymond, commander of Post 110 American Legion in Port Charlotte, Fla., contends, “I had the best job in the Air Force” during the “Cold War.” He was a boom operator on a Air Force 707 jet refueling tanker.
“It’s the only job in the Air Force where an enlisted man has three officers take him to work every day,” he recalled with a chuckle three decades later.
His most challenging “Cold War” experiences took place while he was flying the boom with the 310 Refueling Squadron at an air force base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. They were refueling AWAC radar planes the Saudis bought from Uncle Sam.
“We were about ready to take off in our 707. It was 130 degrees or more on the runway. It was even warmer in our cockpit because we had no air conditioning until we were airborne,” Raymond explained. “We were in the process of taking off and our Number 3 engine caught fire. We had 280,000 pounds of fuel on board. We were a flying Molotov cocktail.
“My pilot yelled at me: ‘Boom, go check Number 3 engine and see if it’s still on fire!’
“I ran to the back of the airplane. I prayed to God I wouldn’t see flames. When I got back there I radioed the pilot: ‘I don’t see any flames, but we’re missing half a flap!’
“I got back to my regular seat and the pilot told me, ‘Lower the boom.’
“When I did he hit all four dump switches. Our 707 dumped 7,000 pounds of fuel per minute over Riyadh. We were flying at 1,500 feet. The Mercedes windshield wipers down below must have made a mess of a lot of windshields about then.
“We flew back to base near Riyadh, got into a spare 707 tanker and took off again. Fifteen minutes later we were up there and we didn’t miss our connection,” the retired staff sergeant said. “It was awesome!”
This was’t Raymond’s only close call during his almost 10-years of service in the “Cold War” Air Force.
“We were on this training mission refueling a dozen F-4 “Phantom” jet fighters off the coast of New York State at the same time. In the middle of the refueling one of the F-4s lost its hydraulics. I had to perform an emergency refueling.
“What I did, when the F-4 pilot flew in behind me, I extended the boom and held extended boom pressure on him while he refueled. Fuel was going all over the place. Then we towed the F-4 back to base using our boom like a tow truck. It took us about an hour to reach base. He landed without any trouble.”
To become a proficient boom operator takes lots of practice and skill.
“I’d bring in a plane to gas up from five-miles out. It takes practice. Once the plane got within 50-feet of our tail I’d talk him in. ‘Forward 50-feet’ I’d say, ’40-feet, 30-feet.’ When I got him to 10-feet I’d tell him” ‘Stabilize.’ Then I’d extend the boom down to his receptacle. A couple of locking jaws would hold the boom in place.
“I need to tell you about the first time I refueled a plane by myself. The plane that flew in was a B-52 “Stratofortress” and the crew must have found out this was my first time on the boom. I talked them close in and I extended the boom down to the bomber’s nose.
“I’m looking down a the bomber and the copilot of the B-52 takes a Playboy Magazine, opens it to the centerfold and holds the picture up against the windshield for me to check her out. I lost it right there. I had to have the bomber crew back out and start their approach all over again.”
During the four years Raymond served as a refueling sergeant he had three airplanes he liked to refuel best: The SR-71 “Blackbird,” the KC-135 “Stratotanker” and the C5-A “Galaxy” — the fastest, the slowest and the biggest planes in the United States Air Force’s fleet.
“When the Russians shot down the Korean Airline some years ago over the Pacific it was a big mistake. They thought they were shooting down the U.S. Air Force’s top secret ‘Cobra Bell,’ the most expensive plane in the Air Force,” Raymond said. “It was an all black 707 loaded with black antennas and listening devices. We use it to fly in international waters just off the coast of Russia to record all their radio and microwave communications.
“For a while we refueled one of the two ‘Cobra Bells’ the Air Force has flying out of Eleison Air Force Base in the Aleutians. Since the spy plane flew with no lights we simply flew in a circle and it found us. I didn’t talk to them at all. I used my lights to bring them into my gas boom,” Raymond said.
“It was imperative that we refueled this 707. To ensure we did the Air Force had two other 707 tankers on the ground as backups ready for us to fly if we needed them. If our plane broke down we’d jump into one of the other 707s and refuel the ‘Cobra Bell.’
“I gave them all the fuel we had on board, except for enough to allow us to fly back to Eleison Air Base.”
Raymond began his almost decade-long Air Force career just out of high school in August of 1976. After boot camp he became a crew chief responsible for seeing that F-104 “Straighter” and F-105 “Thunderchief” jet fighters stayed airborne.
“I was 21-years-old when I arrived in George Air Force Base, halfway between LA and Las Vegas,” he said. “I had a tough decision every time we got liberty—did we go to LA or Vegas?”
He spent 18 months in California and then he was transferred to Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany where he crew-chiefed on F-104s until his first enlistment was up.
“I didn’t want to be a ground-pounder any more. That’s when I decided to reenlist and become a boom operator,” Raymond recalled. “It was a cool job.”
In 1985 he had done his Air Force duty and then some. So he decided to get discharged.
“I became an over-the-road truck driver on an 18 wheeler for a number of years. Then I opened my own truck driving school and taught truck drivers how to get the licenses they needed to drive those big trucks.”
In 2010 Raymond sold his truck driving business and moved to Florida to retire. He is divorced with two grown children.
Name: Michael Raymond
D.O.B: 16 Nov. 1955
Currently: Port Chalotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1976
Rank: Staff Sargent
Unit: 310 Refuling Squadron
Battles/Campaigns: Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, August 30, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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