FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- For two Fairchild staff sergeants, air refueling isn't just the wing mission, it's the family business.
Staff Sgts. Aaron and Leighann Ray are both boom operators with the 92nd Air Refueling Wing. Aboard Fairchild's KC-135 Stratotankers, their job is to refuel planes while in flight, keeping Air Force, Navy, Marine and coalition aircraft in the fight longer than they would if they had to return to base for fuel.
The active-duty couple met six years ago while he was attending school at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and she was preparing to come to Fairchild for her first assignment. They were married a year later in Post Falls, Idaho, and Sergeant Aaron Ray relocated here so they could be stationed together.
Here at Fairchild, he's a boom instructor while she's a fulltime operator and recently deployed for the tenth time. But spending time apart is nothing new for the couple, as their mutual missions keep them flying all over the world keeping planes fueled and in the fight.
"Being apart from one another is tough, but it's the job we both wanted," he said. "We both came into the Air Force wanting to fly. Besides, getting to see so many parts of the world is just one of the perks and it means I get to bring home presents for Leighann from all over the place."
"I've definitely seen more countries doing this job than I would have otherwise," she added. "Plus we know that when we're doing our job, it means other people are able to do theirs."
Sergeant Aaron Ray knew he wanted to fly when he got older. He grew up in Marina, Calif., about 100 miles south of San Francisco, and his parents took him to airshows as often as they could. A World War II buff, his favorite plane was, and still is, the B-17 Flying Fortress. He joined the Civil Air Patrol when he was 12, and five years later was in the recruiter's office asking what kind of flying job he could get in the Air Force.
"After September 11th, I felt an obligation to help bring the fight to the people who attacked us before they could come back again," he said. "They made me a boom operator on the KC-10 (Extender) and sent me to Travis (Air Force Base, Calif.). That was the happiest day of my life, until I met Leighann."
She enlisted right after graduating high school in Pittsburgh, Penn., with the sole desire of filling an aircrew position. Among her various deployments, she's refueled planes as part of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, as well as presidential support missions.
"I love the constant operations tempo while we're deployed," she said. "We fly almost every day, which means fighters are providing close air support, cargo planes are delivering supplies, and we're gathering intel on the bad guys. Refueling is a key part of the Air Force mission."
In their spare time, he enjoys the outdoor adventures the Inland Northwest has to offer; she enjoys horseback riding, scrapbooking and volunteering. In fact, as part of the Big Sister program, Sergeant Leighann Ray has been a mentor to the same little girl for past four years.
"When we first met, she was a very troubled youth, but now she's excelling at school and is in honors classes," Leighann said. "By offering advice and helping keep her on the straight and narrow, she's not only stayed out of trouble, but now she wants to go to veterinary school and is thinking about joining the military. It just goes to show how important mentorship is."
The two NCOs bring that same level of dedication with them to work, as well. Airman 1st Class Jeremy Culliton, a fellow boom operator, has learned from both sergeants.
"They both helped me out when I first got here," Airman Culliton said. "He taught me a lot about the job and attention to detail; she showed me a lot about how to get paperwork done and forms filled out properly. I've learned a lot about being an Airman from them."
Aaron and Leighann are devoted to serving at least 20-year careers in the Air Force. With her penchant for helping people, she wants to be a first sergeant once she becomes a senior NCO. He is excited about the future of air refueling platforms.
"When the Air Force gets a new tanker, I would love to be involved in that, especially if I could still be a boom instructor," he said. "I love the refueling mission and teaching people how to do this job.
"There's nothing more satisfying than that moment where one of your students starts to really get it," he added. "When they're able to apply what you've taught them on an actual mission, it means they're ready to deploy and fight the fight. And that's what our job is all about."