Staff Sgt. Eddie Dean, wearing a junior college baseball cap and chewing a stick of spearmint gum, lay flat on his belly in the rear of a KC-135 Stratotanker and maneuvered a refueling boom toward an F-15 fighter jet flying a few feet below.
Watching the warplane from a small window in the bottom of the tanker, Dean guided the jet into position by flashing a series of lights and then lowered the boom until the refueling hose dropped into position on the plane's wing."My dad owns a filling station," he said later, "so I tell folks, `Yeah, I do the same thing my dad does. I just do it about 30,000 feet up."
Dean, 27, a native of Carthage, Miss., whose unit is based in Altus, Okla., is one of the people responsible for keeping U.S. military airplanes flying continuously over Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield.
Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2, the U.S. Air Force has begun keeping AWACS surveillance planes and fighter jets in the air 24 hours a day. Dean's tanker aircraft and others like it provide midair refueling so the other jets don't have to land repeatedly.
The sergeant watches the aircraft approach for refueling through the window at the bottom rear of the Stratotanker. With both planes flying at about 470 mph, Dean guides the jets slowly forward until they are in position for refueling.
"They get within about 10 feet," he said, "and I plug them."
Dean, who works while wearing a baseball cap from East Central Junior College in Decatur, Miss., said he doesn't worry much about sitting on top of a flying fuel tank carrying about 130,000 pounds of gasoline. Nor is he too concerned about the danger of flying so close to the airplanes that come calling for a high-speed, high-altitude fill-up.
"Jumping out of an airplane is dangerous to me," he said, "but I suppose a paratrooper might look at my job and think it was dangerous."
The dangers these days don't only come from flying in close formation. During the flight, a group of Iraqi warplanes raced toward the Saudi border in an attack profile and then peeled away at the last moment to test the reaction of the American fliers - part of the cat-and-mouse game going on along the frontier.
"There was one following us, but apparently when we were about to leave a bunch more came up," said Capt. David Sprague, the pilot of the Stratotanker.
He said an AWACS surveillance plane notified the American fliers about the Iraqis. Although the crew of the Stratotanker never saw the Iraqi planes, Sprague said, "That's about as close as we like to see it get."
"It does happen all the time," said Capt. Joe Davis, an Air Force public affairs officer. "Nobody crosses the border. Nobody does anything wrong. They fly high speed toward the border and they peal off."
"It does make things interesting though," he added. "It keeps everybody's guard up."
The maneuver prompted some of the American F-15s to return to the Stratotanker for more fuel so they could shadow the Iraqi planes, and Dean went back to work on his belly in the rear of the tanker.
The sergeant warned one of the F-15 fliers he was being filmed by an NBC News crew. Once his tank was full, the pilot gave a thumbs-up signal, raised his fists in a gesture of triumph and then peeled away in a sharp bank.