The daughter of pilots, Brigitt Kincaid of Port Washington indulges her love of flying by commanding Stratotankers carrying jet fuel to war planes on missions all over the world
Brigitt Kincaid loves airplanes so much she would probably fly anything with a pair of wings and an engine.
But given a choice, this petite, 30-year-old pilot who lives in Port Washington likes her planes large, or as pilots say, heavy — really heavy.
Kincaid is a captain in the Wisconsin Air National Guard and commander of a KC-135 Stratotanker for the 128th Air Refueling Wing operating out of General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.
Kincaid, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, sits in the left seat, which means she’s in charge of this brute of an airplane. It’s her job, with the help of a copilot and boom operator, to refuel everything from nimble F-16 fighter jets to hulking C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster cargo planes throughout the world.
She speaks fondly of her plane, a 136-foot-long flying gas can with a wingspan of 130 feet. Similar to the Boeing 707 passenger plane, the $40 million Stratotanker is powered by four jet engines, each of which produces 22,000 pounds of thrust, and can carry 200,000 pounds (33,000 gallons) of jet fuel.
The Stratotanker, in operation since 1957, is not the most modern plane, but Kincaid likes manhandling this trusted refueler.
“Because the KC-135 is older, there’s a lot more hand-flying involved, which I really like,” she said. “I’m pretty laid back, so I’m a lot better at flying heavy jets.”
Kincaid’s job hardly sounds laid back. The delicate dance between the Stratotanker and the plane it is refuelling starts with the other plane approaching 1,000 feet below the Stratotanker.
Once visual contact has been established, the plane to be refueled slides in behind the Stratotanker and approaches the boom extending from the rear of the Stratotanker. The operator of the flying boom, which looks like a pipe with two small wings on it, looks out a window in the back of the Stratotanker and uses a joystick to guide the boom into place.
The two planes are 50 feet or less apart, often flying at more than 400 mph, 20,000 feet off the ground, during the process.
“The other plane is right there,” Kincaid said. “It’s really all about timing.”
Last week, Kincaid left on a seven-day mission to Spain, Italy and the Azores, where she will be refueling a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolts, or Warthogs as they are affectionately called.
The A-10, sometimes referred to as the tank killer, is a heavily armored jet that flies low and slow and presents what Kincaid suggests are some minor refueling challenges.
“They fly slow and have a pretty low ceiling, so we really have to slow down so they can catch up,” she said. “F-16s are no problem. You can’t even tell that they’re there, but big planes like the C-5 and C-17 push a wave of air in front of them, just like a freighter does with water, which gives us a little bump.”
Kincaid didn’t know the specifics of the A-10s’ mission but said some of the planes she has refueled are operating in Afghanistan or other war zones around the world.
The Stratotanker has no weapons, not even flares that other refueling and cargo planes can use to avoid heat-seeking missiles.
“Our best defense is to fly high, or in the case of the A-10, fly out of areas that could be dangerous before refueling,” she said.
Her missions take her to remote places like Iceland, where she recently went to pick up a Dutch squadron of F-16s and escort them to the United States for a NATO training exercise. She took off from Iceland just two days before the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted and shut down air traffic in that region of the world.
“Our timing was pretty good,” she said.
That Kincaid chose to be a pilot is no surprise to her parents, Howard and Alice Clausing, both of whom are longtime pilots living in the Town of Grafton.
“Our life has always centered around airplanes, so no, we’re not surprised by what Brigitt decided to do,” said Mrs. Clausing, adding that she and her husband own five planes and are building a sixth.
Kincaid’s first flight, you could say, was the one to the hospital for her birth. The Clausings, both 1962 graduates of Port Washington High School, were living in Wales, Wis., and vacationing in northern Wisconsin when Mrs. Clausing got the feeling her first child was on the way. The couple flew themselves to southeastern Wisconsin and, a short time later, their daughter was born at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Port Washington.
Her birth announcement read like the specifications of an airplane, listing Howard Clausing as the designer and Alice Clausing as the manufacturer. The model was a girl with an empty weight of 8 pounds and length of 20 inches. The call number was Brigitt Alice.
Kincaid, who grew up in Menomonie, soon developed her parents’ love for flying and earned her private pilot’s license while she was in high school.
“I served as her model, but it was her father who really encouraged her to fly,” Mrs. Clausing said.
The career path that landed Kincaid in the cockpit of a Stratotanker took a seemingly unusual route through the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Long Island, N.Y.
One of the country’s fives service academies, the Merchant Marine Academy trains officers for duty on merchant vessels.
Although Kincaid had little interest in serving on a ship, she was determined to be accepted into the U.S. Air Force flight school, and the best way to accomplish that was to attend the Merchant Marine Academy, her mother said.
“The Merchant Marine Academy gets a certain number of slots for the Air Force training school,” Clausing said. “We were told Brigitt would have a 100% chance of getting one of those slots if she attended the Merchant Marine Academy, as opposed to going to the Air Force Academy.”
Before graduating from the Merchant Marine Academy in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in science, Kincaid distinguished herself by becoming the first female master of the academy’s training vessel, the Kings Pointer, her mother said.
She also found success at Air Force flight school, earning her wings in two years.
Kincaid joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard five years ago, which is when she moved to Port Washington, and has been flying the Stratotanker ever since. She said she has logged 13,000 flying hours.
Although she is a part-time member of the Air National Guard, flying the Stratotanker is her only job, and the only one she wants.
“They call people like me Guard bums,” she said. “I look for every opportunity to fly when my husband is gone.”
Kincaid met her husband Chris at the Merchant Marine Academy. He is the chief mate, or second in command, on the 475-foot Global Sentinel, a ship that lays and repairs underwater telecommunication cables. He sails out of Portland, Ore., and works 75-day shifts.
“Then he’s home for 75 days, which is really nice,” his wife said.
Kincaid has completed seven years of her 10-year commitment to the National Guard, but she doesn’t plan on leaving when her time is in.
“I’ll stay with the Guard because I love flying,” she said. “I get to fly all over the world, the missions are interesting and the Guard is kind of like a family.”