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Tankers and Transports

All in a day’s work

By Frederick A. Johnsen

July 26, 2018 - Maj. Jessica Hodson flies civilian trimotor jumbo jets for a living, until she dons an Air Force flight suit; then she flies military trimotor jumbo jets for the 349th Air Mobility Wing of the Air Force Reserve. The aircraft are UPS MD-11 freighters and similar Air Force KC-10 Extender tankers.

Hodson had the opportunity to fly both of these impressive aircraft to Oshkosh this week for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018. She has logged 2,000 hours in the KC-10 in six years and about 1,100 hours in the MD-11 since joining UPS in 2015. She also has 1,100 hours in KC-135 tankers.

She credits her interest in aviation to her mother who served as a flight attendant for an international airline when Hodson was a teenager. Hodson would come home from school in time to hear her mother describe the day’s exploits like flights to Mexico and back. “Sounds like that beats an office job,” the young Hodson figured.

Her ticket to the sky was Indiana State University’s aviation program. By the time she graduated, Hodson’s proficiencies included certified flight instructor, multi-engine, and aerobatic skills. This proved to be a bit of a challenge when she showed up for Air Force pilot training in 2008, Hodson said. Her skill and natural confidence could be misunderstood by flight instructors who were accustomed to much less experienced students, so Hodson had to “show them you can fly the plane but don’t do too much,” she recalled.

Her Air Force Reserve career track took her next to KC-135 tankers at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana, and then on to the much larger KC-10s at Travis AFB in California.

So how is it, flying two ginormous jets that look alike but do different missions? Hodson said, “The MD-11 is a much more advanced KC-10.” The KC-10 has three crewmembers on the flight deck: two pilots and a flight engineer. The MD-11 has different switchology that makes it a two-pilot airplane without a flight engineer.

Hodson adapts to whichever cockpit layout she is flying. The MD-11 puts more tasks on her list, while the KC-10 requires alert communication with the flight engineer. The MD-11 has a maximum takeoff weight of 630,000 pounds compared with the KC-10’s 590,000 pounds. And the MD-11 is likely to return to the runway with more weight than the KC-10, since the job of the tanker is to offload its 356,000 pounds of jet fuel to thirsty fighters.

Hodson, like many military members, has deployed in support of U.S. and Allied air efforts around the world. “I’ve deployed seven times in my eight years of being a flier in the military,” she said. When fighters and attack aircraft make combat sorties as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the duty of tanker crews is to fly a designated racetrack where fighters low on fuel may come up for a tankful. Hodson smiles as she describes the tanker’s track as “sit ’n spin” high over the desert.

The all-important boom operator in the back of the KC-10 has both a flying boom and a hose-and-drogue available to refuel whatever aircraft may show up. Up front, Hodson needs to be aware which refueling device is employed, since trailing a long hose with a drag-inducing drogue can place different demands on the aircraft than the rigid boom. And the hose unloads fuel at a slower rate than the boom, necessitating longer contact times with the receiver aircraft.

The Air Force opened a number of aircrew positions to women in the 1980s. If the pioneering female flight crewmembers occasionally faced pushback, they paved the way for the women who followed. “I got really lucky in timing,” Hodson said. “It’s not so ‘weird’ anymore and we’re accepted.” And spending any time around Hodson, one quickly gets a sense of her professionalism and skill set.

But it’s not all kick the tires and light the fires for her; a self-described “foodie,” Hodson said she is very much into physical fitness. An avid snow skier, she has hit the slopes with a UPS team in Europe. And while she’s at AirVenture, Hodson takes turns with the rest of her crew explaining the intricacies of the KC-10 Extender to a steady line of visitors climbing a stairway to the tanker.

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