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Cowboys who ride Stratotankers

MARRAKECH, Morocco -- Cowboys haven't gone anywhere. They just joined the Utah Air National Guard and became pilots. These horsemen took the Wild West up to roam the "wild blue" on the wings of more technologically advanced beasts.

The KC-135 Stratotanker is the mother of all these beasts. This in-flight refueling tanker provides crucial fuel to thirsty F-16 Fighter Falcons, and others of its kind, allowing them to reach limitless destinations.

In this case though, their destination was the Aeroexpo Marrakech 2010 at the Royal Air Forces Military Base in Marrakech, Morocco from January 27 to 30.

The Utah ANG Stratotanker and two F-16s from McEntire Joint National Guard Base in South Carolina, posse up for the trek across the Atlantic Ocean. After all three aircraft become airborne, the first F-16 is corralled into an invisible docking station. Then the boom operator, Master Sgt. Eric Henderson, lowers the boom like a seasoned wrangler and lassos the first Fighter Falcon who feeds, detaches and then attentively backs off before racing across the boundless nothingness; back in route to the air show. The Stratotanker then pursues them, committed to its mission under the flashing lights and glitz of the air show, where it will be showcased as one of the many static displays.

The Utah ANG and Morocco have had a State Partnership program since 2003. Under this program, it is one of the Utah ANG's roles to foster good, bi-lateral relationships with Morocco. This includes participating in air shows, like the Aeroexpo Marrakech, to strengthen military ties.

The Utah ANG also participates in humanitarian efforts in Morocco, and this flight is taking advantage of that opportunity. Among the Stratotankers additional cargo are 50 school kits, donated by the spouses of the Utah National Guard senior enlisted leaders, to be given to an orphanage in Morocco.

The only interruption in the path of the mighty Stratotanker is turbulence. Turbulence is simply the nature of the flying beast though, and it merely adds a little "giddy up" to the ride of the pilot and crew of the 151st Operations Group, who bop up-and-down in their "saddle" seats.

Approaching land, dark clouds brood 400-feet above the runway, much lower and the pilots would have to abort the landing.

"This is not my first rodeo," says pilot, Maj. Mike Flocco, as he descends into the storm.

The aluminum mare breaks through the heavy clouds with its neck craned as it maneuvers into position. Before touchdown, the forepart of its body flares up into a defiant pose. With two heavy stomps, its hind legs strike the ground first followed swiftly by its forelegs. Once its full body weight is on the ground, it dashes madly across the runway. The beating hooves are audible, and they jostle the crew's bodies with every thump.

Major Flocco reins the brakes in to calm the wild beast. The tanker slows to gallop, then to a steady trot. The pilot taxis the mare to its designated hitching post, and delivers the crew to their exotic destination.