May 5, 2015 3:52 PM

Gas station in the sky: Aerial refueling by NH Air National Guard plays critical role since 9/11

It is something you have to see to believe. Military planes are fueling up in the middle of the sky. NH1 went wheels up with the New Hampshire Air National Guard whose role has become critical since 9/11.

Pease Air National Guard Base - Our mission began in the morning. We strapped into a KC-135 from 1962. Minutes later the clouds became our companions, as the plane transformed into a virtual gas station in the sky. Our agenda included fueling up six F-16 fighter jets on a training mission off the coast of New Jersey. It was a relatively easy day at the office for this unit.

"We currently have operations throughout the world both in the Pacific as well as in the Middle East," said Col. James Ryan, Commander of the 157th Operations Group.

It was not long before we reached the F-16s high above the Atlantic Ocean. The boom operator, charged with giving gas, crawled into the back of the plane. Then one by one the fighter jets took turns fueling up, while the others literally waited in the wings for their turn. In less than half an hour, it was mission complete.

These air refueling missions date all the way back to the 1920's, and are critical to making today's military efficient.

"If we don't have the tanker then planes have to land, " said boom operator Mark Brophy.

That can take three to four hours which can cost lives, especially in a war zone.

"It also allows tactical things like fighters to stay on targets longer, which is obviously very important for our troops on the ground," said pilot Lt. Jordan Gauvin. "If they have wounded soldiers or something onboard coming back to the states they don't need to stop anywhere they can just continue to come back, and we'll give them gas the whole way."

9/11 became a real game-changer for the New Hampshire Air National Guard. Within hours of the attacks, a K-C 135 took to the air refueling fighters patrolling the Eastern Seaboard. That was just the beginning.

"Ever since Sept. 11 we've had an increased operations tempo and the 157th Air Refueling Wing has supported that global air refueling mission," said Col. Ryan. "We've probably maintained the highest operations tempo for the past decade then any other time in history."

In the coming years, the unit plans to transition to a newer fueling plane, the KC-46 Pegasus, as they continue to help keep our military running one gas tank at a time.

Take a look at more photos from high in the sky in this photo gallery.

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