When Stan Brubaker became a pilot, he could have picked practically any plane he wanted. He chose the KC-135 Stratotanker.
The Stratotanker is a refueling tanker developed in the 1950s. The first aircraft flew in August 1956 and the initial jet model was delivered to Castle Air Force Base, California, in June 1957. During the Vietnam War, published reports note that KC-135s made approximately 813,000 refuelings of fighting aircraft.
Brubaker, 76, flew his fair share of those missions.
Joining the military wasn’t planned. Brubaker, born in Buffalo, New York, and raised in Larchmont, attended high school and went to Pennsylvania State University to study agriculture economics.
Penn State had a mandatory ROTC program, in which students had to serve at least two years. By the time Brubaker was a sophomore, his career path was clear. “It became evident . . . that the starting salary of a lieutenant in the Air Force was about $5,000 a year, whereas in my specialty it would be about $3,500,” he said.
On to the wild blue yonder
Thus, he continued his advanced ROTC training, earning his commission as second lieutenant in 1962. He was assigned to active duty at Moody AFB in Georgia, where he completed his pilot training in August 1963.
“It was a very, very strenuous 13 months,” Brubaker said. “We flew half the day and did academic work half a day. They were long days, many times six days a week.”
Because he graduated in the top third of the class, he could pick nearly any plane. He chose the KC-135, a military version of the commercial Boeing 747. His plan was to put in five years with the Air Force and become a commercial airline pilot. The KC-135 was the perfect choice to gain the experience he would require.
Brubaker was assigned to Westover AFB in Springfield, Massachussets, as a co-pilot monitoring systems and flying when needed. Serving with the 99th Air Refueling Squadron, he was on alert seven days, followed by seven days off, with actual flying done between alerts. During this time, he would deploy for two to three weeks in Europe, the Middle East, Spain — anywhere that airborne B-52s needed to be refueled.
But by 1966, the war in Vietnam had escalated and Brubaker’s unit was deployed to Southeast Asia.
During the Vietnam War, the Air Force noted that U.S. fighter and bomber operations hinged upon the KC-135.While typically confined to operating outside of North Vietnam, KC-135s often flew into hostile territory to save fighters short on fuel, without which they might not have returned to base.
According to Brubaker, the plane could carry 200,000 pounds of fuel and, when fully loaded, it was so heavy it needed nearly two miles of runway to get off the ground. Deployed for six months at a time, followed by six months at home, Brubaker made four deployments.
He flew all over the map. While stationed in Okinawa and Taiwan, he refueled B-52s conducting bombing missions in Vietnam out of Guam. He flew during the typhoon and monsoon seasons. Refueling in the air is tricky, Brubaker said, because pilots had to be so precise.
Though they carried no armament, “on numerous occasions, we were chased by North Vietnamese MIG aircraft,” he said. Fortunately, he was never hurt.
Retirement as colonel in '88
Brubaker would go on to serve until he retired as a colonel in 1988. During the last years, he had ever-increasing responsibility and was involved in numerous campaigns, including Operation Lightning in Vietnam and the USS Pueblo crisis off the shore of North Korea. During the Iranian hostage crisis, he refueled planes at night, without the aid of electronics.
“The rescue attempt resulted in disaster, but that portion of the mission went flawlessly,” he said.
Over the years, as his job grew, so did his titles. Near the end, he served as wing deputy commander for operations, overseeing 70 air crews. He met many dignitaries, including Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
In 1983, Brubaker married Lori Mund. Between them, they have seven children. They moved to Woodway, and Brubaker worked at several companies, including L-3 and Baylor University, where he was the assistant chair of the Aviation Sciences Department. He became an independent aviation consultant before retiring in 2003.
Today, Brubaker remains close to many people he met while in the military. He especially enjoys reunions. He keeps busy, and he and Lori travel extensively.
“I would not have done anything different,” Brubaker said. “I was proud to serve my country.”