Like the Loch Ness monster emerging from the deep, the hulking jet with a radar dome protruding from its top rose slowly through the darkness.
Though it seemed to be moving in slow motion, the Airborne Warning And Control System aircraft, or AWACS, was cruising through Monday night's sky at more than 300 miles per hour.
That was about the same speed as another monster jet it was trying to catch, a KC-135T Stratotanker from Michigan's Air National Guard.
As the two jets nudged within 50 feet of each other, the gray tanker extended a long pipe, or boom, to reach a grapefruit-size port above the AWACS cockpit to refuel the aircraft.
Even with a faint glow from the moon's orange-yellow orb rising on the horizon, this job was easier said than done as turbulence bounced the two planes around in midair, 22,000 feet over the Mojave Desert.
"Come on," boom operator Misty Bice said.
She tried to coax the AWACS pilot over the radio to inch his aircraft closer, with its 30-foot-diameter radar dome slicing through thin air and its four jet turbines whirling.
She was in a prone position in the "boom pod" at the back end of the Stratotanker. Her chin rested on a pad, and her left hand gripped a joystick that controlled the boom.
"Down! Down!," she shouted, when the AWACS came too close.
Then it faded back a safe distance to make a second approach.
This time it worked, and Bice, a 29-year-old staff sergeant who recently returned from refueling warplanes over Afghanistan, punched a button that popped the boom into the AWACS fuel port.
"It's always a little more tricky at night," she said. "Holy cow. Sometimes its just ugly."
It was all part of a Green Flag rehearsal for the war zone from where she had just returned. But this time she and the Stratotanker crew of Capts. Matt Hendrickson and Deryck Castonguay were supporting warplanes out of Nellis Air Force Base and soldiers engaged in battle with would-be insurgent fighters in a remote, rugged part of Fort Irwin near Barstow, Calif.
While the AWACS controlled air traffic over the battleground, swarms of F-16CJ Fighting Falcons from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., would drop bombs in airstrikes called in by troops on the ground. And like the AWACS, they would fly back to the Stratotanker two at a time to refuel and return to the war game.
Before the night was over, the "Michigan Six Pack" team -- formally known as the 171st Air Refueling Squadron, out of Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Mount Clemens, Mich. -- refueled eight F-16s and the AWACS.
Bice, of Chesterfield, Mich., said experience has taught her that when the adrenaline gets rushing, it's important to "stay calm in an emergency."
Boom operators must adjust to conditions and the skill levels of pilots who must position their planes within reach of the 22-foot boom, which can extend another 18 feet.
"The trickiest part of my job is doing air refueling in the dark in bad weather," she said. A key part of succeeding is being able to judge distances at night "when 50 feet might look like 30 feet."
The pilots, Hendrickson and Castonguay, also must keep the Stratotanker steady and easily accessible, flying in a pattern within range of fighter jets that are low on fuel.
And they must maintain a speed that is appropriate for the plane they're refueling, whether its roughly 300 mph for an AWACS or 360 to 400 mph for a fighter jet.
The KC-135 can take off with up to 200,000 pounds of jet fuel. How many fighter jets it can refuel depends on how far it must fly to reach airspace above or near the battlefields. Typically each F-16 will take on 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of fuel.
Castonguay, the aircraft commander, said in combat situations, the missions are longer than Green Flag exercises and the tempo of operations "is a lot quicker."
Their experience in refueling in war zones overseas is priceless to the fighter pilots flying Green Flag maneuvers.
"We're here to provide support for their training," Castonguay said.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.