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See how Thunderbirds get refueled at 20,000 feet

CHICAGO — If you went on a summer road trip, chances are you had to pull off the highway and fill up the tank.

But for the U.S. Air Force, stopping isn't always possible. WGN's Mike Lowe traveled with the Illinois unit tasked with refueling military planes 20,000 feet off the ground.

Mid-flight fueling is delicate and potentially dangerous work. It requires precision at high speeds and high altitudes. The KC-135 Stratotanker is designed for just that.

"It is really the No. 1 asset that allows us to extend our air force around the world at a moment’s notice," said T.M. Jackson, operations group manager of a refueling wing at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Ill., which sits roughly 300 miles southwest of Chicago.

The 59-year-old plane may look dull and gray next to sleek, nimble air force jets. But the massive machine, capable of in-flight fueling, is the unsung hero of American air power.

"It takes a lot of gas to do what we do, and we can’t carry enough of it," Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh said. "So rejoining with the tanker is going to extend our range, so we can get further, faster, and more efficiently."

The Stratotanker uses a telescoping tube to push some of its 33,000 gallons of gas to other airplanes.

"We have enough fuel on the airplane to essentially pump more gas in five minutes than a gas station can all night long operating 24 hours a day," Jackson said.

Chief Master Sgt. Sam Gerros is a boom operator who has served in the U.S. Air Force for 36 years. The Northwest Side native's job is essentially to make a mid-air collision between two planes going 400 miles per hour as safe as possible.

"In our book, it says flying in close proximity is inherently dangerous," Gerros said. But "we fly in very close proximity. It can be anywhere from 20 to 30 feet.”

On this day, the KC-135 met the famed Thunderbirds, the elite of the elite fighter pilots, on their way to the Chicago Air & Water Show. So as the splashy stunts fill the sky over North Avenue Beach this weekend, it’s worth remembering that American air power is fueled by an old, gray steel Stratotanker.