Depending on who you ask, the response to uttering the words “Iron Maiden” bring about very different emotions. Ask any fan of rock music and chances are the reaction is the sign of the horns. Ask any Naval Aviator, however, and the response is almost certainly dread.

The trouble starts seemingly as a result of USAF vs USN rivalry. The Navy, while forever validating its own masculinity, designed its refueling system exactly opposite that of the Air Force. The Navy receiver will have its phallic male end plug into the the tanker. Of course, the Air Force is just the inverse, with the tanker plugging into the receiver aircraft.

In the Navy system, each aircraft is equipped with a refueling probe. Department of the Navy tankers are designed from the start to be equipped with a drogue, such as on the KC-130 or the ARS pods on the Super Hornet. The Air Force tankers are fitted with a special drogue receptacle, commonly called “the basket,” specifically to accommodate their Navy customers.

Once the pilot is in the basket, it is pretty easy to top off for both the tanker and receiver. The hose is long, flexible, extendable and retractable while plugged in, and overall very user friendly. Here’s a Hornet tanking from a KC-10 Extender, which has a nice, long refueling hose that affords the receiver plenty of room to maneuver:

As seemingly low-stress and effortless as that may look, I can assure you it is not so with the Iron Maiden, as Naval Aviators have come to call the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker. Unless the -135 is equipped with wingtip pods and long hoses, it can be one of the least pleasant portions of any given sortie.

The brilliant design has a single hose coming out of the boom, less than ten feet long, and very rigid. While it’s often easier to get plugged in compared to other drogues, staying in is an entirely different ball game. In this system, the boom operator actually has quite less to do compared to when they top off USAF aircraft. I don’t know if this design was a conspiracy by frustrated boom operators to keep themselves amused or not, but I’m sure watching a rookie in the basket is entertaining for them.

Author refueling. Notice the hose has no room for error if the receiver descends.
Author refueling. Notice the hose has no room for error if the receiver descends.

The process entails roughly ten minutes of continuous, intense concentration. Not your ordinary intense concentration, but more like a surgeon’s concentration when operating. To get fuel to flow, the receiver must push the hose forward enough to cause a bend or “kink”. Since the hose is so short, any sudden movement in any direction means you are a half second away from breaking your airplane and the tanker; the most likely result is ripping the refueling probe off your aircraft–definitely not something you want to happen over Indian Country.

The problem can be exacerbated if there is an overzealous boom operator. The boom can still be controlled and moved by the operator. Depending on his/her experience level, this can be a great help or a nightmare. In my experience, the operators that just let me do my own thing often gave me the best time while plugged in. For example, if you are lined up left while trying to plug in, and you make your correction to the right, it’s not uncommon for the operator to make his/her own correction at the exact same time. This will leave you now lined up right of the basket…and the dance continues. This kind of out-of-phase scenario can also happen anytime there is a course deviation while already plugged in.

Some poor soul wrestling with the Iron Maiden.

“Basket slaps” on the aircraft are not uncommon; it is hard to dance with the Maiden and not get roughed up. While I love the Hornet, there’s some questionable design philosophy when it comes to tanking. The probe is on the right side of the nose. Also, on the right side is an AOA (Angle Of Attack) probe. There are two hydraulic systems on the aircraft and each are run off of its respective motor. All of the hydraulic services besides flight controls (landing gear extension, brakes, anti-skid, etcetera) run off the right motor. Murphy’s law says you will have a basket slap on the right side and the AOA probe will be forcibly removed. Where would it go? You guessed it: straight down the right engine intake!

Now you are looking at a potential single-engine scenario with degraded AOA information going to your air data computer and flight control computers. Not the kind of airplane you want to bring back to das boat.

The only silver lining is that the KC-135 has the highest flow compared to any other tanker. Still, on a combat sortie where up to 40 minutes can be spent plugged into her basket, she’s definitely earned her nick-name of “Iron Maiden”.