FORT KENT, Maine — When Michael Bouchard walked into the Loring Military Heritage Center for the first time two years ago, he never expected to come face to face with some very personal military history.
“My brother Jim [Bouchard] and I went for a ride one day and decided to stop in at Loring,” Michael Bouchard said from his Fort Kent home last week. “We walked into the heritage center and looked around at all the different areas they had with all the photos and memorabilia and then I looked up and saw a model of a KC-135 tanker hanging from the ceiling.”
His voice still choked with emotion years later, the former Air Force KC-135 crew chief said the tail of that model bore the same number of the plane on which he crewed during his 11-year career at Loring.
“I saw that and it hit me like a bolt of lightning,” Michael Bouchard said. “I just had to get out of there [because] it hit me wicked hard.”
A year later, Bouchard found himself back on the former Air Force base attending a reunion sponsored by the heritage center last summer, where he met up with Ray Hildebrand, heritage center trustee and builder of military model aircraft.
“I commissioned Ray to build a model of the KC-135A I was crew chief on,” Bouchard said. “Then I decided, if I was in for one, might as well be in for two.”
It turns out that David Bouchard, Michael Bouchard’s younger brother, was a crew chief at Loring on a B-52G bomber, and the elder Bouchard commissioned a model of that plane while he was at it to surprise his brother.
Last Sunday, while David Bouchard was visiting northern Maine from his home in Georgia, Michael Bouchard lured him to the Loring Military Heritage Center, where a carefully orchestrated celebration was in play.
Unbeknownst to David Bouchard, many of his family members were already at the center waiting for him and many of them have their own connection to the former military base or current Loring Development Authority.
In fact, among seven members of that family spanning two generations, there are more than 76 years of combined service on the base, including the Bouchard brothers’ father, who worked on the snow removal crew for 27 years.
“That’s really something when you think of it,” Michael Bouchard said.
Even more remarkable is the fact several of the family members’ times at Loring overlapped, including Michael and David, who were both crew chiefs at the same time in the 1980s, each responsible for their own plane.
Crew chiefs were in complete charge of all things mechanical and of all maintenance on their planes.
It’s with great fondness and pride David Bouchard recalls the years he spent taking care of the B-52 he dubbed the “Pterodactyl Courier,” complete with custom painted nose art.
“That was in 1989,” David Bouchard said. “The crew chiefs had their name painted on the side of the plane and got to choose the nose art.”
Because his B-52 was destined for active use in Desert Storm as a bomber and first rolled off the assembly line in 1958, David Bouchard said he wanted the name and nose art to reflect something ancient in flight, but capable of delivering death from above.
What evolved was a drawing of a fierce pterodactyl, clad in armor and clutching a harpoon missile in its talons.
On Sunday, David Bouchard was presented an exact 1:72 scale model of that plane, complete with that unique nose art and associated mission and crew patches.
“That plane was heavy on maintenance,” David Bouchard recalled. “There were eight engines and 13 hydraulic systems and it held a fuel load of 48,000 gallons.”
As it happens, Michael Bouchard’s KC-135A was one of the kinds of planes used for inflight refueling of those massive B-52s.
And while the brothers never met in mid-air on the same mission, they each had more than their share of adventure on the wings.
Like the time David Bouchard found himself on board his plane over the Atlantic Ocean on a return flight from England.
As was customary, planes making that flight were paired up for safety reasons, and for whatever reason, during that flight they were paired with a commercial Delta Airlines flight.
“We were flying along fat, dumb and happy when a red warning light came on,” David Bouchard said. “It was telling us we had lost 50,000 pounds of fuel in 10 minutes, and for that to have happened, it had to be a structural problem with the aircraft.”
Not seeing anything amiss out of their windows, the B-52’s pilot radioed the Delta pilot and asked him to take a look at his plane.
“That Delta flight came in really close but the pilot radioed he could not see anything,” David Bouchard said.
During that time, he said, the rest of the crew — himself included — were busy putting on every article of warm clothing they could find, life vests and parachutes in preparation for an ocean landing or crash.
Luckily, David Bouchard said, it turned out to be a faulty gauge and no one had to go swimming that day.
But his brother’s biggest scare really takes the cake.
It was on a 1984 flight when Michael Bouchard was part of a mission to return American forces to Germany, with a number of KC-135s, KC-10s and F4 fighter jets slated to fly nonstop from a base in South Carolina to Germany.
“We were the ones carrying the fuel to get those fighters there,” Michael Bouchard said.
At one point, one of the F4s experienced an engine failure and soon after, the second engine began to overheat.
The next thing Michael Bouchard knew, his plane was assigned to escort that fighter back to Gander, Newfoundland.
“That F4 could not sustain level flight and it began to go into a slow slide down toward the Atlantic,” he said. “So we slowed our rate to close in with him.”
The KC-135 pilot was able to connect his boom — the conduit through which fuel passes between the planes — to the ailing F4 and literally tow it back to a safe altitude.
“On the first attempt to hook up, we accelerated away too fast and the boom detached from the F4,” Michael Bouchard said. “When he hooked it the second time we were 1,900 feet above the water and we leveled off at 1,600 feet.”
After that, it was a slow climb towing the jet up to 10,000 feet, he said.
That move earned the entire KC-135 crew the McKay Trophy, the award given for the year’s greatest feat of piloting.
It’s little wonder the brothers treasure the scale models Hildebrand spent 200 hours building for them.
“This means the world to me,” David Bouchard said, looking fondly at the model.
Both models will be on display next summer at a gathering at the Loring Heritage Center commemorating the 20th anniversary of the base’s shutdown and the 60th anniversary of its opening.
“For me, when I think of Loring, it’s not about the base closing down,” Michael Bouchard said. “It’s about the evolution of the base into the [Loring Development Authority] and all the work that is still going on there.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said the entire B-52 crew earned the McKay Trophy. The KC-135 crew earned the McKay Trophy.