This is a boomer operator:

enter image description here (source by John E. Lasky - United States Air Force)

If he is not refueling an aircraft, or the plane is not on a refueling mission, what is he doing? Is he sitting in that small cabin all the time, or is he free to move on the aircraft? Can his role be taken by anybody from the crew, or is he the only person on board who can handle the refueling boom?

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    $\begingroup$ You actually have to "fly" the refueling boom which requires special training so I'm pretty sure that not just anybody can operate the boom. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 15 '16 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Just to make that clear: the control surfaces you see on the end of the boom there, are actual working aerodynamic control surfaces. The boom is not rigidly attached to the aircraft and steered by lever force, it is truly "flying" behind the tanker, and the boom operator has to fly it like towed glider, with the added difficulty of flying backwards. $\endgroup$ – Jörg W Mittag Mar 15 '16 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JörgWMittag The lateral control is reversed though, so the operator moves the stick left to move it left, he doesn't have to think "in reverse". $\endgroup$ – Simon Mar 15 '16 at 17:53

The boom operator (or boomer) can freely move around the aircraft. The boom operator position is usually accessible from the cargo hold and the operator can use the opening to move from his/her position. This is especially important for the KC-135 Stratotanker, which has the boom operator working in a prone position.


Image from sobchak.files.wordpress.com

While the operator is not fueling other aircraft, he/she has other responsibilities to carry out. According to the US military job description of a boom operator, the boomer,

Prepares and verifies load plans, directs cargo loading, and unloading operations, and inspects aircraft load to ensure hazardous cargo compliance and weight and balance status of aircraft. Ensures adequate safety equipment and passenger comfort items are on aboard aircraft. Instructs passengers in use of emergency equipment and emergency procedures.

among other things.

The boom operator is a specialist and his/her job cannot be done by anyone else on board. The operator also has to be qualified for the type of aircraft he/she is refueling. From interview of a USAF boom operator in foxtrotalpha:

Every receiver is a little different, so we have specific qualifications for heavy aircraft and fighter aircraft, called gulf and Charlie.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it should be Golf and Charlie, but I can't find any other sources that refer to that. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 15 '16 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ "Golf" is the correct ICAO/NATO phonetic alphabet word for G, but if you say "Gulf" when the listener is expecting an ICAO letter word, he'll hear "Golf". $\endgroup$ – KeithS Mar 15 '16 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ As far as the answer, it's excellent, but I would add that these tankers usually have pretty full fueling schedules during their flight, so while a tanker is in the air the boom operator is usually in his cubby, as he doesn't have much time to be anywhere else. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Mar 15 '16 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ How long does it take the tanker to get on station, or to leave station? Presumably the boomer has nothing to do during that time, and should nap or read a book... $\endgroup$ – Roger Lipscombe Mar 15 '16 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Roger Lipscombe That sounds like a nice job :-) $\endgroup$ – user3624251 Mar 15 '16 at 19:20

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