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Tankers: The Bass-Players of the Air Force

Lt. Col. Stew Welch, 9th Air Refueling Squadron commander, shares some thoughts on how refueling crews are similiar to and just as important as bass players. (Courtesy Photo)

Lt. Col. Stew Welch, 9th Air Refueling Squadron commander, shares some thoughts on how refueling crews are similiar to and just as important as bass players. (Courtesy Photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I’ve been a tanker pilot for almost my entire 18-year military career. I am also an avid bass player. It occurred to me that there are many similarities between these two passions.

There are several reasons why tanker pilots are like bass players [Warning: If you are not into aviation or music, stop here. However, if you like flying or play an instrument—this is probably for you.]

Size – Let’s start with the obvious. A bass is a large instrument. Tankers are big airplanes. Simple enough.

Variety – Tankers refuel everything that flies: fighters, cargo planes, bombers, reconnaissance platforms, even each-other. Everyone in the fight relies on refueling. Similarly, the bass-player lays down the groove for every type of soloist: horns, vocalists, guitars…you name it.

Type – There are two types of basses: electric and upright. There are also two kinds of tankers, the KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender. The electric bass is comparable to the KC-135, because they are ubiquitous and smaller. The upright bass is more like a KC-10: larger, harder to come by and in high demand.

Difficulty – Flying a tanker looks easy, but it’s tough to do really well. The same is true of the bass. Any guitar player can pick up a bass and play some notes, but playing the bass well—with feeling--this is a skill that takes years of deliberate practice and experience to develop.

Foundation – Bass players serve a key function in any band—they have to hold down the bottom and establish the groove. As a rhythm instrument, the bass must lock in with the drums, providing a solid foundation for the other instruments to perform on in order to sound their best. The same is true in the air: tankers are the foundation of any planned air operation. Everyone depends on them. Take the bass out of the band and the bottom drops out, leaving the sound empty and void. Likewise, go to war without tankers and you’re in for a pretty short fight.

Scope – Tanker crews and bassists must have a wide breadth of knowledge. Air Force tanker crews are trained to operate multi-million dollar aircraft in any environment, anywhere in the world. This means flying over the United States, over any ocean, in active war zones, in uncontrolled airspace, and over unique areas like the polar ice caps in Greenland where the magnetic variation can wreak havoc on navigational instruments. This is comparable to the seemingly endless range of styles that a professional bassist must strive to master: jazz, classical, rock, blues, salsa, bossa-nova, gospel and numerous international genres. Both require an attitude of constant learning and self-improvement.

Team Players – Tanker crews and bassists must be team players. They are active listeners, sensitive, and people who work well in groups. They normally have high emotional intelligence. The good tanker pilot is always thinking about things outside of his or her airplane like the receiver he or she is meeting to refuel, or that pesky slot time that must be met upon landing. This others-centeredness is precisely the attitude of the seasoned bassist: always listening and aware of what’s happening around him or her.

Style – Tanker crews and bassists carry themselves in a similar way. They have a certain attitude, their own swag. They are typically quiet professionals, awesome at what they do, but rarely ever in the limelight. Good tanker crews can get the gas to their receivers on time, on target and they often find an extra 15,000 pounds of gas to give to receiver aircraft. In the same way, a good bassist is the consummate professional, he or she shows up on time, is always prepared and lays down that fat bassline.

Dedication – Tankers and bassists can handle monotony. James Brown’s bassist may play the same six note phrase for 19 minutes like a robot, but if that sets the groove and keeps it funky, that’s what he’ll do. This is the parallel to ‘drilling holes in the sky’ in between activities on a combat sortie: you’re there to support. Tankers and bassists do what it takes and they do it without complaining.

Cool – Finally, bass players are cool. Tanker crews are cool, too. Fighter pilots and lead guitarists may get lots of attention at concerts and air shows, but that’s OK. The tanker crew dog is content knowing who got him to the fight and back.

I love flying air refueling missions in the KC-10 just as much as I love playing bass in a tight jazz trio or on a Sunday morning at church. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do both. Flying in the Air Force has enabled me to directly support our nation’s freedom and that same freedom allows me to play music. It’s a beautiful thing.