Flying under a new call sign
During 13 deployments to the Middle East, Lt. Colonel Rob Aikman ’01 was a pilot in charge of refueling fighter and bomber aircraft mid-flight. Now, he pilots Air Force Two, a military plane with the radio call sign used for the Vice President of the
“It still blows me away to this day when we fly around the world and get off that aircraft and you see the blue and white, the ‘United States of America’, and the flag on the tail,” said Aikman. “We are flying around, spreading democracy and freedom and representing the United States and all of the values that we hold dear to our hearts.”
While it might seem like an unconventional path, Aikman’s journey to this esteemed position started at Mines. An ROTC scholarship brought him to campus from Oklahoma, and then after his junior year, he was asked to sign up to be either a pilot or a navigator. He decided to give a go at being a pilot because “it sounded like fun.”
After a series of physicals and earning high test scores, he graduated from Mines and was commissioned and sent to pilot training for the next 54 weeks. He learned the fundamentals of flying on a small jet aircraft and then moved into the heavy aircraft track. Aikman earned his wings when he graduated from pilot school in 2002. “It was a great day,” he remembered. And, like many people following the events after 9/11, he was eager to serve.
Aikman was assigned to fly a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, a military aerial refueling aircraft. “We would do mid-air refueling with cargo planes so they don’t have to stop in another country to refuel. A lot of times in Afghanistan and Iraq, where you’re dropping munitions, our fighter and bombers need to stay airborne. Instead of an hour at a time, [with in-flight fueling], they can stay up for six to eight hours,” Aikman explained.
The process of in-flight fueling is almost like a ballet dance; two planes up around 25,000 feet flying 30 feet apart have to match air speed first, nice and controlled. When they are in the right position, a crewman extends a flying boom with a rigid hose attached to the Stratotanker to the fighter or bomber plane. And everyone hopes that they don’t hit turbulence while the refueling process happens.
Aikman laughed as he mentioned that the first page of his flight manual warns that flying two aircraft in close vertical proximity is unsafe; practice during training and proper procedures kept Aikman and his crew safe during
“When you’re up at 30,000 feet watching the most beautiful sunrise—that’s what I love about flying,” he said. Aikman’s main goal has always been to fly for as long as he can, but as he moved through the ranks of the Air Force, those opportunities were harder to come by. With more years in the service come more leadership responsibilities and less time in the air.
So he applied to the 89th Airlift Wing, which provides airlift, logistics and other support for the United States President, Vice President, Combatant Commanders and senior leaders. The application process is intense, requiring documentation of the previous five years of performance reports and recommendations from supervisors, topped off with a three-day interview with some of the highest senior commanders who ask hard tactical and situational questions. In 2016, Aikman was selected to pilot Air Force Two for four years; at the end of that term, he will have served in the Air Force for 20 years and will be able to retire.
Aikman looks at his time in this prestigious position as similar to when he was at Mines. “I like to surround myself with the best and brightest people, which is another reason I went to Mines,” he said. “When I’m around intelligent, driven people, it challenges me to up my game so I can help others when I get the chance.”
A Closer Look: Air Force Two
- Air Force Two is not a specific plane, but a radio call sign for whatever plane the vice president is using. Currently, the military plane is a C-32, a specially configured version of the Boeing 757-200 commercial intercontinental airliner.
- Air Force Two was added to the presidential fleet in 1959 and similar to Air Force One, the plane’s nose and tail were painted the Air Force’s visible “international orange” color while block letters on the side said “Military Air Transport Service.” President John F. Kennedy and his wife felt the planes needed to have a more presidential brand, so they changed the exterior design. Now, the blue paint coordinates with the American flag on the tail and a more formal typeface is used for the “United States of America.”
- It costs about $30,000 an hour to operate Air Force Two, according to the Air Force Cost Analysis Agency in 2016. The aircraft is more fuel efficient than its C-137 predecessor, can travel twice the distance and can operate on shorter runways.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to have his own plane; he flew to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. President John F. Kennedy was the first president to fly in a jet specifically built for presidential use.
- The U.S. Air Force asked Congress this year for $6 million to start the planning process for replacing the C-32As, which will reach the end of their 25-year service life in 2023. The next version will have better communications, increased flying range, more room for passengers and improved private work space.