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60 YEARS IN THE AIR: A pilot's perspective

Capt. Kari Benson, 344th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, stands in front of a KC-135 during a deployment in June 2015. Benson has deployed five times since her arrival to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., in 2012. (Courtesy photo)

Capt. Kari Benson, 344th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, stands in front of a KC-135 during a deployment in June 2015. Benson has deployed five times since her arrival to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., in 2012. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- (Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight in August 2016.)

Many kids entertain big dreams about growing up to become a doctor, a lawyer or even a pilot, and often times those dreams eventually fade away. But every once in a while, big dreams do become reality.

In the seventh grade, despite having never flown on a plane, Capt. Kari Benson set a goal to become a pilot. Little did she know that this dream would lead her to something bigger than she ever imagined.

"I actually wanted to be an astronaut, and just through reading about astronauts I learned a lot of them are pilots, so I was like, 'oh I guess I should probably become a pilot if I want to become an astronaut,'" said Benson, 344th Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker pilot. "That's what my seventh-grade brain put together."

Years later, after deciding that joining the Air Force was the best way to accomplish her dream, Benson attended the U.S. Air Force Academy, where her academic excellence helped earned a spot to attend undergraduate pilot training.

During the 13-month UPT, Benson learned how to fly small aircraft and accumulated more than 170 hours of flying time along with approximately 360 hours of academic instruction in the classroom.

"About two weeks before you graduate from UPT you have  'drop night', which is when you are told what aircraft you will go on to fly in the 'Big Air Force'," said Benson. "I dropped KC-135s to McConnell."

After graduation, the new pilot spent five months at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma learning to fly the KC-135 before heading to her first duty-station.

In the air, it is important for tanker pilots to maintain a stable platform in the aircraft to make it easier for receivers to get their gas. It is also critical for pilots to be able to calculate offloads and manage their fuel to maintain specific center of gravity parameters, said Benson.

"We learn to fly the plane first through flying the simulators, so it was a totally different experience to fly the actual jet for the first time," she said. "Everything seems to happen faster in the aircraft because you can put the simulator on pause if you start falling behind in the mission. You don't have that luxury in the aircraft."

After months learning to master the tanker, Benson arrived here in 2012. Since then, she has deployed five times and has seen the importance of the KC-135 first-hand.

During what she considers one of her most rewarding missions flown while in a deployed location, Benson remembers being in the middle of refueling a gunship when a call came through that a helicopter went down.

Although the pilot of the helicopter survived the crash, the enemy was quickly closing in. Benson and her crew topped off the receiving aircraft with fuel so they could assist with the recovery mission.

"We had to flex our mission so that we could give them gas to provide cover and bring another aircraft off the coverage to come get gas," said the tanker pilot. "By doing that, they were able to recover everything and protect our guys on the ground."

Although she admits tankers may not be the most glamorous aircraft, she knows they are still imperative to the mission.

"Even though we don't have the missiles, guns and the cool stuff shooting off of our planes and actually killing the bad guy, we get to protect the guys on the ground in a unique way, and I think that's really cool," she said.

Playing such a crucial role in the big picture is one of Benson's favorite parts about being a KC-135 pilot, and her enthusiasm for her job can be seen by those who have worked with her.

"Captain Benson's determination in carrying out the tanker mission represents an enthusiasm ingrained in KC-135 culture," said Capt. Andrew Nation, 349th ARS KC-135 navigator and friend of Benson.  "Our aircrew knows that it is impossible for the Air Force to extend a clenched fist or a helping hand without air refueling.  They will do whatever it takes to provide top-notch tanker support."

As for Benson's dream of one day becoming an astronaut, she said she is still seriously considering it and will probably pursue an opportunity once she gets some more tanker flying hours under her belt.