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'You could reach out and jump in the cockpit'

6/17/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The lettering on the F-15 fighter's fuselage was clearly visible from the boom window beneath our KC-135 refueling jet.

"Capt. Bill Kopp", it read.

We were close enough to see the pilots' faces as they took turns adding fuel 25,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast.

"It was like you could reach out and jump in the cockpit," Seahawks coach Jim Mora said.

All while traveling 400 mph.

"If I make a mistake on a route, I might drop a ball or there might be an interception," tight end John Carlson said. "If they make a mistake, it might be life or death. It really puts it into perspective."

I wasn't sure what to expect when former Rams and Seahawks defensive end Bryce Fisher, a captain in the Washington Air National Guard, invited me to accompany a small contingent featuring Mora, Carlson, strength coach Mike Clark and backup tight end Joe Newton.

The experience exceeded any reasonable expectations [see photos on my Facebook page]. I'm not sure anything on a football field, at least from a spectator's standpoint, can compare with the sight of a fighter jet flying so close.

"Watching Coach and the players get down in that boom, they are like little kids at Disneyland," Fisher said. "How do you get to be within 20 feet of a fighter in midair? It's an amazing experience."

The morning began at Camp Murray near Tacoma with Col. Paul Gruver, an F-16 pilot on leave from Delta Airlines, walking us through a PowerPoint presentation detailing the Guard's evolving and expanded role in national defense. From there we boarded passenger vans and headed to nearby McChord Air Force Base.

On the way, Gruver pointed to an F-16 that scrambled into service during the 9/11 attacks, assigned specifically to Flight 93. Surreal.

We drove onto the tarmac and gathered outside two massive KC-135s. Mora immediately noticed the Seahawks logo painted on the tail of the one we would be boarding. The plane, based at Fairchild Air Force base in Spokane, carried 70,000 gallons of fuel weighing 200,000 pounds. Inside, Guardsmen had added 36 commercial-style seats to accommodate their civilian guests; the plane generally features cot-style seating for 57 along the sides.

The seats faced the back of the mostly windowless plane, with two massive wood storage crates, each rated at 5,000 pounds, separating us from the boom area. We were free to visit the cockpit at our leisure, and we did, but the boom area featured the most spectacular views -- right down to the fighter pilots' JHMCS helmets.

As Gruver explained, the helmets allow the plane to track potential targets based on how the pilot turns his head. What the pilot sees is pretty much what he can get. In the NFL, meanwhile, teams cannot always count on reliable coach-to-quarterback headset transmissions.

The recessed boom section featured room for three people, including the operator, to lie on their stomachs and look out through large windows as the refueling line reached down and back to the fighter jets. I stepped down into the boom area and watched awestruck as the operator passed 3,000 pounds of fuel into Lt. Joshua Havanas' jet.

Havanas, piloting the jet labeled with Kopp's name, gave a thumbs-up signal through the fighter jet's overhead glass to signal he was finished. Tilford, a mechanic for Alaska Airlines, promptly disengaged the fuel line. Havanas rolled the jet away to his right, disappearing from view. I will never forget that sight.

"These are airmen and soldiers who have day jobs and come down here and serve," Fisher said during an autograph session back at Camp Murray. "What the Seahawks mean not only to our state but specifically to the guys in their units, guys are paying attention to what is going on with their team while they are serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever it is in the world."