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 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.