It only looks easy.
A pair of needle-nosed warplanes suddenly appear, needing fuel before they make the last dash across the Libyan coast to their targets. In the next few minutes, the bomb-laden Italian Tornados will stage a delicate, high-speed, close encounter with lumbering Canadian Hercules, and as a matter of practised routine transfer 10 tonnes of fuel in midair.
"They are bit early," chides the Canadian pilot, who like the rest of the crew aboard the air refueller can't be named. The Tornados, far faster and manoeuvrable, close in on the left side of the Herc. One slides behind and below, and reappears behind the right wing. Then, edging forward, the fighter pilots poke probes that jut ahead and above their cockpits into a pair of fanlike drogues streaming back from the Herc's wings and start taking on fuel. In less than six minutes it is over.
But it's not easy. Imagine driving an 80-tonne tanker truck down a long hill at better than 350 kilometres an hour - rather faster than the truck is intended to go - while a pair of motorcyclists that you have never met are forced to slow to almost fall-over speeds, while inserting a broom handle into a funnel to siphon fuel.
It's a bit harder with a Hercules. To refuel combat warplanes the four-engined propeller aircraft must operate very close to its maximum speed, while the jets must slow down far more than if they were getting fuel from one of Canada's Airbus tankers or other jet refuellers.
In fact, the Herc goes into a very shallow dive to build up sufficient speed to make the transfer a little easier for the warplanes. Then, the three aircraft - 85 tonnes of Hercules and a pair of 35-tonne Tornados plugged tight into the streaming umbilicals - occupy a patch of sky not much bigger than a suburban lot.
Toss in a little turbulence, or the blackness of night, or the urgency that goes with a fighter-bomber nearly out of gas, and the aerial ballet becomes orders of magnitude harder.
Canada has sent two of these Hercules tankers, along with an Airbus tanker and seven CF-18 fighter-bombers, all based among scores of other allied warplanes at Trapani on Sicily's west coast, flying round-the-clock as part of NATO's air war to destroy Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's military.
The Hercules, a ubiquitous, amazingly versatile transport/tanker/search-and-rescue aircraft, has been in the Canadian forces for half a century. The oldest have long since retired, but 17 of the newest models are on order for a total of $1.4-billion. There are 22 Canadian Hercules currently flying, including the first of the new version. "They're not always pretty, but very effective," says Captain Andre Kratochvil, who heads the ground crew keeping the Hercs flying. Canadian Hercs have deployed to Afghanistan, to Haiti, to the Arctic. "You name it, we fly it, trash hauling [Capt. Kratochvil means airlift of supplies] refuelling, northern resupply, medevac …" the list seems endless.
After takeoff, there's laconic banter in the cockpit as the four-man flight crew, two pilots, a navigator and a flight engineer, gently needle each other. A couple of the Winnipeg-based 435 squadron are keen on the return of the Jets NHL team, and a Leafs fan gets plenty of scorn. Puffy white clouds litter the sky and an aircraft carrier - "It's French, I think" - slides underneath, looking tiny on the shimmering blue Mediterranean. Far behind, holidaymakers bake on Sicily's sands as the Herc settles into the racetrack orbit off Libya's coast. As many as a eight other tankers might be airborne, offering top-up to inbound bomber aircraft who want to hit the coast with full tanks or refuelling strike fighters that have been loitering over Libya looking for targets of opportunity. The usually dash out mid-mission to refuel.
As tankers, the Hercs may not be as ideal as purpose-built modern jets, but Canadian fighters deployed to the Arctic rely on them. In the back of the cavernous Hercules, almost everything has been stripped out to allow for the maximum weight of fuel to be carried in a huge silvery tank secured in the middle of the cargo bay and hooked into the aircraft's own fuel tanks. Behind the big tank, close against the paratrooper doors, a pair of observers keep a close eye on the warplanes as they nestle up tight. While refuelling the warplanes are so close that they can't be seen from the Herc cockpit. There's no undue tension, but everyone is very focused. The banter in the earphone dies away. Mistakes happen. Probes break. Even highly-trained fighter pilots fail.
"I know one guy who broke the drogue away … it was still attached when he landed and he has it at home," one of the Herc crew says. The tale may be apocryphal, but the humour belies the risks - a bad mistake in such close formation could be catastrophic, perhaps for all three planes.
A little later, two French Mirages hook up, each draining another five tonnes of fuel. Another day, it might be Canadian CF-18s looking for fuel. While most nations with tankers, including Canada, give priority to their own warplanes in mission planning, the integrated NATO operation means almost all pilots, no matter why type of combat aircraft they are flying, can plug in and refuel from the American, British, Canadian, French and other refuellers constantly orbiting off the Libyan coast.