Gas Stations In The Sky
FLYING AT 300 KNOTS, CAPT. ALTON (“BOOTS”) McCORMICK FEELS A SLIGHT bump in his F-15C Eagle as he passes through the bow wave behind a KC-135 tanker. He stabilizes his fighter jet about 500 feet back and then accelerates toward the boom, a rigid, telescoping 50-foot pipe coming off the rear of the tanker. As the boom disappears over his left shoulder, McCormick turns his attention to a series of lights on the underside of the tanker: “You’re kind of watching the tanker for an overall big picture, and the director lights tell you forward, aft, up and down.”
Inside the tanker a boom operator, better known to pilots as the boomer, runs the direction lights and maneuvers the boom into position with the fighter’s refueling port. At contact, fuel surges through the boom from the tanker to the fighter. In just a few minutes McCormick takes on 20,000 pounds of fuel. Then he eases back his throttle to disconnect and banks away from the tanker.
When McCormick describes this procedure, he makes it sound easier than parallel-parking a car. Yet in-flight refueling is an extremely tricky maneuver that demands a high degree of precision, using instruments and techniques that were developed through a history of experimentation stretching back to the early days of aviation.
For almost a century now aviators have dreamed of staying in the air longer than is possible on a single tank of gasoline. Larger fuel tanks and more efficient engines can help, but only so far. The basic problem is weight. A gallon of aviation fuel weighs about six and a half pounds. That’s enough to keep the 1909 Wright Signal Corps airplane in the air for 16 minutes, a World War II B-24 for 18 seconds, and a modern F-15 fighter for about 6 seconds. Unfortunately, carrying a large fuel load makes a plane slow and sluggish; beyond a certain point, it can make the plane too heavy to take off. In any case, fuel decreases the weight available to carry cargo or bombs. To keep flying on extended missions, aircraft need to receive more fuel while they are in the air.
But consider what it takes to get fuel from one plane to another while both are flying. They must ease into a tight formation at high speed and hold their positions, even in bad weather, poor visibility, or gusting winds. Then the plane carrying the extra fuel—the tanker—must get a hose to the other plane. The crew receiving the fuel needs to connect the hose to their fuel tank in a way that will keep the flammable liquid contained. As the fuel flows, staying in formation grows more challenging because the tanker gets lighter, which makes it rise, and the receiving plane gets heavier, which makes it sink. Still the pilots must keep the planes flying close and at the same speed. Once the fuel has been delivered, the flow must be turned off before the hose is disconnected. Only then can the two planes fly off on their own.
The first documented scheme for in-flight refueling came from a young Russian aviator named Alexander de Seversky. His father owned a plane and taught him to fly when he was in his early teens. At the age of 21 Seversky, flying for Russia in World War I, attacked a German destroyer. He got shot down before he could drop his bombs, which exploded when his plane crashed. Somehow Seversky survived, but he lost a leg. Less than a year later, wearing a wooden leg, he returned to military aviation, and he soon downed 13 German planes.
In 1917, now 23, Seversky proposed a method for extending flight: One plane could carry extra fuel and deliver it to another through a hose. After the Revolution, Russia’s new Bolshevik government sent him to the United States to study aircraft design, and he stayed there when political developments made his return perilous. He got a job as an aeronautical engineer for the U.S. War Department and was awarded the world’s first patent for air-to-air refueling, which proposed to provide “large fuel tankers … to supply fuel to pursuit ships while in flight.”
Seversky went on to a distinguished career in airplane design and achieved perhaps his greatest fame as the author of the influential 1942 book Victory Through Air Power . He never put his refueling plan in action, though, and other aviators concocted ideas of their own. In 1918 Lt. Godfrey L. Cabot, a U.S. Navy Reserve pilot, dreamed up the idea of placing cans of gasoline on floating platforms in the ocean and picking them up with a hook trailing from a flying plane, much as express trains of the day snatched mailbags. Although Cabot became proficient at picking up cans with this technique, no one ever used it for refueling.
On November 21, 1921, a completely different method was tried. Frank Hawks (who a year earlier had taken Amelia Earhart on her first flight, and who would go on to set numerous speed records as a promotional pilot for the Texas Company, which later became Texaco) flew his Lincoln Standard biplane over Long Beach, California. Wesley May, a barnstorming wing walker, crawled up onto its top wing. With a five-gallon can of gasoline strapped to his back, May started walking toward the edge of the right wing. Meanwhile, Earl Daugherty, perhaps America’s greatest stunt pilot, eased his Curtiss Jenny just above the Lincoln. When Daugherty got his lower left wing within range, May reached up and grabbed a loop on its lower edge. Then Daugherty eased away, with May and his gas can hanging below. May climbed up onto the lower wing and eventually poured the gasoline into Daugherty’s tank.
In-flight refueling of a less strenuous sort attracted the attention of some military pilots. In World War I, Lt. John Richter had complained about having to return repeatedly to base to get more fuel during the St. Mihiel offensive in 1918. In 1923 he flew patrols along the Mexican border with Capt. Lowell Smith. Both men grumbled about the abbreviated flights and seemingly constant refueling. Smith suggested refueling the planes in midair and got the go-ahead to try it. Richter turned out to be a good choice to try out the new equipment because he had tested locomotives for the Santa Fe Railroad. For his part, Smith had flown in cross-country races as an official representative of the Army Air Service.
Smith and Richter turned a De Havilland DH-4 two-seater into a tanker by installing a 40-foot hose strengthened with steel cable. To refuel, a crewman in the tanker would toss the heavy hose overboard, and a crewman in another DH-4 flying nearby would try to grab it as it whipped in the wind. Richter even designed a hand pump to put suction on the gas tank in the receiver.
On April 20, 1923, Lt. Virgil Hines and Lt. Frank Seifert, flying the tanker, came in above and behind Smith and Richter and dangled a hose from the cockpit. (The tanker approached from behind to keep the hose from tangling in the receiver’s propeller.) Imagine that someone is whipping the hose at a gas station as you try to grab it and that the hose keeps flailing as you put the nozzle in the tank and fill up. That’s what Smith and Richter faced on that flight. Somehow one of them managed to grab the hose and hold on to it, and the two planes kept contact for 40 minutes in this tethered arrangement, though they passed no fuel.
The basic technique seemed to work, so on June 27, 1923, the same teams transferred fuel between planes. On the first contact, 25 gallons of gasoline were transferred. The receiving plane kept flying until it needed fuel again, and a second hookup gave it 50 gallons. Overall, the receiving plane stayed airborne for 6 hours and 38 minutes. Beginning the next day, the receiver flew for 23 hours and 48 minutes nonstop, taking on 308 gallons of gasoline. On August 27 and 28, with 14 refuelings, Smith and Richter stayed aloft for 37 hours and 15 minutes.
The future of in-flight refueling looked promising until November 18, 1923, when some aviators attempted refueling over Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a carnival exhibition. The hose from the tanker caught in the propeller of the receiver, and the tanker crashed, killing Lt. P. T. Wagner. His death ended American experiments with refueling for several years.
In the fall of 1928 a group of Army Air Service officers decided to try again. They modified a Fokker C-2 for aerial refueling and called it Question Mark because no one knew how long it could stay in the air. An impressive accomplishment for duration aloft had been set in June 1928 by the Belgian air force, which used refueling to keep a De Havilland biplane in the air for more than 60 hours. (As the aviation historian Richard K. Smith has written, “Given the minuscule size of Belgium … the purpose of this operation is unclear.”)
The tests would demand reliable tankers, which were created by modifying a pair of Douglas C-1s. Each was given two 150-gallon fuel tanks and a trapdoor to drop out a 50-foot hose. (The same method was also used to lower and raise baskets containing food, oil, clothing, messages, and tools and parts for repairs.) To refuel, the tanker crew dangled the hose near Question Mark while the two planes flew at 80 miles per hour with as little as 15 feet separating them. One of Question Mark ’s crew members would stick his head and shoulders out of a hatch in the roof, behind the wing, and grab the fuel hose. Then he would manhandle it through the hole and line it up with the tank’s opening.
During the design stages, crew members had feared that pulling the fuel hose through the air could create static electricity and cause a spark when the nozzle touched the fuel tank’s opening. So the designers wrapped a copper wire around the nozzle and mounted a copper plate near the opening in Question Mark . Before refueling, a member of the receiving crew touched the hose to the copper plate to discharge any static. The project started at Boiling Field, in Washington, D.C., but winter arrived before the tests could get under way, so the group moved to Rockwell Field, near San Diego, in midDecember.
Keeping Question Mark airborne required communication between it and the tanker, but airborne radio was still in its infancy, so the team devised an array of cumbersome techniques for keeping in touch. For air-to-air signals between the planes, the crew members wrote messages on blackboards or used hand signals during the day; at night they used flashlight signals or attached written messages to the end of the gasoline hose. When members of the ground crew needed to communicate with Question Mark , they wrote on the side of the tanker. To send a message to the ground, the Question Mark crew put it in a weighted bag and dropped it.
After months of preparation on both coasts, Question Mark was ready for testing. On January 1, 1929, it took off from Lot Angeles Metropolitan Airport, in Van Nuys, California, with Maj. Carl Spatz (who in 1937 would change the spelling of his last name to Spaatz to encourage the proper pronunciation, “Spots”), Capt. Ira Eaker, Lt. Harry Halverson, Lt. Elwood Quesada, and Sgt. R. W. Hooe aboard. It was quite an illustrious crew. All except Hooe eventually became generals, with Spaatz serving as the Air Force’s first chief of staff and Quesada heading the Federal Aviation Agency. Capt. Ross Hoyt, flying one of the refueling planes, also went on to become a general, and today the Brig. Gen. Ross Hoyt Award is given annually to the Air Force’s top refueling crew.
The team planned to refuel over the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, where Georgia Tech and California were playing. (This was the game in which Roy (“Wrong Way”) Riegels, a California lineman, picked up a fumble and ran it toward his own end zone, resulting in a safety that provided the eventual margin in Tech’s 8-7 victory.) With the hose stretched between the planes and fuel flowing, Eaker held Question Mark steady. Suddenly turbulence forced the planes apart, and the hose swung wildly inside Question Mark. Gushing fuel soaked Spaatz. Eaker jumped up from the controls, turned the plane over to Quesada, and told him to head out to sea. Eaker and the others stripped Spaatz and rubbed him down with lubricating oil to keep the fuel from burning his skin. Spaatz had no intention of ending the flight, so the planes flew out to sea and finished transferring fuel there.
Later refuelings were less eventful, and once the crew settled into a routine, they were able to receive fuel every few hours. During all refuelings, crewmen were required to wear parachutes, so Spaatz, covered only in lubricating oil, put on a chute and got to work with the rest of them. Question Mark stayed aloft for 150 hours and 40 minutes, flying an oval course between Van Nuys and San Diego. During the flight the two tankers pumped more than 5,000 gallons of fuel in 43 transfers.
Private pilots took up the challenge of surpassing Question Mark ’s feat. By July 1929 the record for duration aloft was up to 420 hours and 17 minutes. A year later it was 647 hours and 28 minutes. And in July 1935 a pair of brothers, Fred and Algene Key, of Mississippi, set a record that still stands by keeping Ole Miss , a Curtiss Robin J-1, in the air for 653 hours and 34 minutes, more than 27 days.
The success of Question Mark ’s flight also kindled interest in applying in-flight refueling to commercial aviation. From August 15 through 20,1929, the Texas Company conducted a nonstop flight of a Buhl Airsedan CA-6 from Spokane, Washington, to New York City and back. That flight required 11 refueling, including one in a violent storm. Another refueling, over Miles City, Montana, took place without a regular tanker available. Local residents, alerted to the emergency by a dropped message, filled five-gallon milk cans with gasoline and sent them up in a plane, from which the cans were lowered with a rope onto the top of the Buhl’s fuselage. Despite, or perhaps because of, this experience, commercial airlines showed little interest in the prospect of in-flight refueling.
The U.S. military also stepped back from refueling technology in the 1930s. Strategists sought other ways to make planes fly farther, including low-drag steel monocoque skins instead of wood or fabric, larger fuel tanks (which could sometimes be jettisoned when empty), and more efficient engines. In-flight refueling research continued, however, in other countries, particularly Great Britain.
The technique still needed improvement. One weak link involved getting the hose from the tanker to the receiver; simply dangling a hose in the air seemed primitive even in the 1920s. After watching an aerial-refueling demonstration at the 1930 Chicago National Air Races, Lt. Richard Atcherley of Britain’s Royal Air Force thought he could do better, and he devised a new approach.
In Atcherley’s technique, the tanker trailed 300 feet of line with a grapnel hook at the end. The tanker flew in from behind, at an angle to the receiver, to hook the receiver’s 100-foot weighted line. The receiver then pulled in the tanker’s line, which was attached to a fuel hose. Atcherley also added an automatic coupling to the end of the hose, so the fuel line would open when the hose was connected to the receiver’s tank and close when it was disconnected.
Atcherley’s “crossover” method earned a patent in 1935. The patent was purchased by Flight Refuelling Limited, headed by Alan Cobham, who had previously been knighted for his work on civil aviation. The company took over Atcherley’s work, receiving support from Imperial Airways, which envisioned using refueling in its commercial flights.
By 1939 Flight Refuelling Limited had developed another technique. In this method the receiver pulled a weighted line with a grapnel hook at the end, while the tanker flew alongside and fired—somewhat like a whaling harpoon gun—its hooked line across the other to entangle the hooks. The tanker pulled in both lines, attached a hose, and released them. The receiver then pulled back the lines and the hose with a winch. As in previous methods, the fuel flowed under the power of gravity, requiring the tanker to fly higher than the receiver.
This technology had its first commercial success on August 5, 1939. On that day two Imperial Airways Short S-30 flying boats flew from England to the United States, refueling in the air twice—once over Ireland and once over Newfoundland—from Handley Page Harrow bomber transports. It was not a nonstop flight; in fact, both refuelings took place shortly after takeoffs. Refueling was necessary because the plane was carrying a heavy load of airmail and could not have gotten off the ground with a full tank of fuel. The flight went so well that Imperial Airways repeated it 15 times. Before this advance could change commercial travel, though, World War II ended these experiments. After the war BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) performed further tests of in-flight refueling until the arrival of long-range jet airliners became imminent.
The war rekindled some curiosity about in-flight refueling in the U.S. military. In 1942 the Army Air Corps asked Flight Refuelling Limited to outfit a B-24 Liberator as a tanker and a B-17E Flying Fortress as a receiver. These retrofitted planes performed successful refueling tests at Eglin Field, in Florida. Nevertheless, the Army Air Forces Board concluded that aerial refueling would have limited use on bombers because long-range bombers would soon become available, and by that time the United States expected to have occupied islands within their range of Japan. Consequently, American interest hibernated again.
Although World War II did not make refueling seem urgent to U.S. military leaders, the Cold War was another story. Several events spawned this shift in thinking. First, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) came into being on March 21, 1946. This group was responsible for delivering nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, but all it could rely on were piston-driven B-29 bombers, which lacked intercontinental range. Then the U.S. government created the Air Force as a separate service on September 18,1947. Carl Spaatz, now a general and the Air Force’s chief of staff, assigned top priority to in-flight refueling in January 1948.
The Air Force sent Gen. Jimmy Doolittle to Britain to investigate Flight Refuelling Limited and its apparatus. Doolittle had long been familiar with airborne innovations. In 1922 he had flown from Florida to California, making just one stop along the way—for refueling, of course. In 1929 he’d made the first instruments-only flight, lifting off, flying a prescribed route, and then landing with a hood covering the cockpit windows the whole time. And in April 1942 he had led the famous bomber raid on Tokyo that boosted Allied morale tremendously.
Doolittle came back with an enthusiastic report. On June 30, 1948, the Air Force activated its first two refueling units, the 43rd Air Refueling Squadron, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Arizona, and the 509th Air Refueling Squadron, at Roswell Air Field, in New Mexico. Late that year each unit received B-29s modified as tankers, which were called KB-29Ms. SAC wasted little time in showcasing its new capabilities. In December 1948 a SAC B-50 flew 9,870 miles in 41 hours and 40 minutes, during which it was refueled three times by KB-29M tankers.
SAC didn’t stop there. From February 26 to March 2,1949, Capt. James Gallagher flew nonstop around the world in 94 hours and 1 minute in the Lucky Lady II , a SAC B-50. The plane refueled four times along the way, over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Hawaii. After that flight Gen. Curtis LeMay, the commander of SAC, said, “We can now deliver an atomic bomb to any place in the world that requires an atomic bomb.”
Although SAC’s system looked good to observers, in-flight refueling was still unsophisticated. The method in use required a crewman to connect the hose manually in an unpressurized compartment. That limited the system to lower altitudes, where planes fly less efficiently because of thicker air. In addition, the system could transfer only 200 gallons of fuel per minute, and SAC wanted 600. It also failed in severe cold because the hose froze on the reel.
The shortcomings in the approach led to a long-running duel between refueling systems. In 1948 Boeing started testing its flying boom, an extendable pipe equipped with ruddervators—essentially little wings—to fly it into position. A year later Flight Refuelling Limited tested its new probe-and-drogue method. In this technique, a tanker dangles a flexible hose that ends in a drogue, which looks like a giant shuttlecock with its open end outward. The receiver is equipped with a spear-tip-shaped probe. To transfer fuel, the receiver flies up behind the tanker and inserts the probe into the drogue.
The Air Force tested the probe and drogue in December 1949 in Project Outing. It put probes on B-29s and Republic F-84 Thunderjets and outfitted a B-29 as a tanker that pulled a drogue from its tail section. The Air Force also modified a YKB-29T tanker with three drogues, one from the tail and one on each wingtip, so it could simultaneously refuel three planes (earning it the nickname Triple Nipple). Although these tests went well, on October 19,1949, the Air Force put out a press release about the other system, the flying boom, that stated: “It is expected that the new system, developed for the Air Force by the Boeing Airplane Company, Seattle, Wash., will alleviate some of the difficulties of the existing method.” Less than a year later Biggs Air Force Base, in Texas, received the first KB-29P, which was a B-29 converted to a tanker with a flying boom.
By the end of 1950 SAC needed a faster tanker, one that could keep up with Boeing’s B-47 Stratojet bomber. At that time the aeronautics industry offered few planes that were large enough to serve as tankers and fast enough to keep up with the jet-age military. To get more tanker speed, SAC selected Boeing’s KC-97 Stratofreighter, which was based on the B-29. The KC-9 7 could outrun previous tankers, but its maximum speed when fully loaded still lagged behind a B-47’s minimum speed. Consequently, some refuelings between a KC-97 and a B-47 demanded a so-called toboggan maneuver, in which the tanker flies at a downward angle to pick up speed and the jet follows along the same path while reducing its thrust. Besides being hard to coordinate, the toboggan maneuver wasted fuel. The receiving plane could end up using half the fuel it had taken on just to get back to its former altitude.
Even as the technology was still being modified, tankers saw action in the Korean War. On July 6, 1951, a KB-29M flown by a SAC crew refueled four Lockheed F-8 O Shooting Stars over North Korea. This appears to have been the world’s first combat refueling. A few days later a KB-29P used a flying boom to refuel a North American RB-45C Tornado photoreconnaissance plane.
A dramatic demonstration of the potential of refueling occurred on September 28, 1952. On that day Lt. Col. Harry W. Dorris took off from Yokota Air Force Base, in Japan, in an F-80 that was equipped with a 265-gallon fuel tank on each wingtip, and a probe to refill it. Soon after takeoff Dorris refueled at 15,000 feet because his heavy load of armaments! had demanded a light load of fuel just to get airborne. Then he flew to Kilchu, North Korea, where he dropped his two 500-pound bombs on a four-story building that contained enemy supplies. After that he refueled. Next he flew to the Onjin Peninsula and shot his four 6-inch rockets at a supply dump. Reduced to only the 50-caliber ammunition of his machine guns, he strafed a troop bivouac near Yangdok, in central North Korea. Completely out of ammunition, he flew reconnaissance. He refueled for the final time at night and ended his flight after 14 hours and 15 minutes.
In spite of successes like these, compatibility issues arose, especially when a probe-equipped fighter ran low on fuel with only a boom-equipped tanker in sight. In hopes of resolving that dilemma, SAC wanted a single system: boom or drogue. But no consensus could be reached. Pilots of fighters, which are small and maneuverable, preferred the drogue, which was simpler to use and weighed less. Pilots of large heavy bombers liked the boom, which required less attention from the receiving plane’s pilot and could pass more fuel per minute.
The most serious problem with tankers, however, continued to be speed and altitude. Early tankers could not fly as high as the improving fighters and bombers of the day. SAC needed a new tanker, something fast that could fly high, but the government did not offer any development money. Still, Boeing’s president, Bill Allen, knew that the military needed a new tanker, and he wanted to build it.
On March 26, 1952, Allen sent a memo to his division heads, asking if they thought they could fly a prototype jet transport in just two years. Jim Barton in Boeing’s cost-accounting group said it would cost $13 to $15 million. On April 22 Boeing’s board of directors unanimously approved $15 million for Project X, or the Model 367-80, better known as the Dash-80. This project posed an enormous risk, for the military had not described the specific performance details that it wanted, and the $15 million investment represented more than twice Boeing’s profits from 1951. Although the plane had civilian uses as well, if the Dash-80 failed as a tanker, Boeing could fail too.
At SAC’s Requirements Conference in November 1953, General LeMay called for 200 jet tankers. The Air Force announced a design competition for a jet tanker on May 5, 1954, and invited Boeing, Convair, Douglas, Fairchild, Lock—heed, and Martin to participate. At that point Boeing’s leaders could only forge ahead with the Dash-80, which had its first successful flight test on July 15, and pray that it would win the competition.
On August 3, 1954, with the jet-tanker design competition still in progress, the Air Force decided to buy interim tankers. The Air Force Secretary, Harold E. Talbott, announced an order to buy 29 tankers from Boeing. Less than two weeks later the Air Force said it would buy 88 more Boeing tankers. It looked as if Boeing was set to win the competition, but it didn’t. In February 1955 the Air Force announced that Lockheed had won the competition and at least one of its tankers would be funded for construction. In the very same announcement, however, Talbott said the Air Force would buy an additional 169 tankers from Boeing. Eventually it canceled Lockheed’s paper proposal.
Boeing called its Dash-80 tanker version the KC-135. It improved several capabilities over previous tankers. It carried 31,200 gallons for refueling, whereas the KC-97 (previously called the C-97) carried only 8,513. And it could refuel planes at 35,000 feet, nearly twice the altitude ceiling of the KC-97. It also used Boeing’s flying boom.
Even with the advent of the KC135, refueling battles continued. SAC used the boom, the Navy and the Marines stuck with the probe and drogue, and the Air Force used both. It could be confusing and dangerous when planes low on fuel called for a tanker and had to ask if it was a mama—meaning it had a drogue—or a papa—meaning a boom. The KC-135 could add a drogue adapter, but only when on the ground.
Despite this never-ending battle over hardware, tankers played an enormous role in Vietnam. By mid-1967 they had begun refueling helicopters in addition to planes, greatly extending the copters’ range and allowing them to support more rescues and special missions. Vietnam also saw the first aerial refueling of large numbers of planes on demand during battle. To accomplish this, the military developed Air Refueling Control Points, or ARCPs, at which tanker pilots flew around an oval at least 100 miles long. Sometimes whole fleets of tankers used the same ARCP, and 50 or more could line up. When that happened, receivers arranged themselves in cells separated by 4,000 vertical feet—essentially waiting in line for gas.
In 1966 alone, KC-135 crews received credit for saving 53 planes that would have crashed without refueling. One of the most noted saves came in June, on the so-called Peanuts flight. Four F-105s, each carrying six 750-pound bombs, took off from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base. The length of this mission called for refueling before and after bombing. The jets got their first refueling and then hit the northeast railroad that ran from Hanoi to China. During the bombing the F-105s encountered heavy flak and then dogfighting with MiGs. They used more fuel than expected and couldn’t even climb to a safer height for return. They called for refueling, and a KC-135, which was defenseless, headed into MiG territory.
The F-105s overran the tanker and flew back for it to catch them. Then the tanker overran them, and the F-105s used afterburners to catch up. Peanuts 4, flown by Capt. Ralph Beardsley, showed only 100 pounds of fuel and got on the boom first. Regulations prohibit refueling during turns, but Beardsley needed fuel so desperately that he made contact during a 30-degree banked turn, grabbed some fuel, and got back into line. The gauge for Peanut Lead, piloted by Capt. Ray Lewis, then read zero, so he got on next. Eventually all four pilots fueled up and flew home. The pilot of Peanuts 3, Ken Kerkering, wrote: “This tanker went far beyond the call of duty by flying into hostile territory to reach us, and without him the four of us in Peanuts flight, at best, would have been running around in the jungle.”
In the mid-1970s the Air Force started looking for a replacement for the KC-135. It came from the McDonnellDouglas DC-10, which was dubbed the KC-10 in its tanker version. This new tanker joined the Air Force on March 17, 1981. It included both a boom and a probe-and-drogue system, so it could refuel any plane in the U.S. military fleet. According to Boots McCormick, “Refueling behind a KC-10 is very stable. It is so big it almost drags you.” KC-10s made possible America’s retaliatory raid on Libya following a terrorist bombing in 1986. In the longest fighter mission ever flown, 18 F-IlIs were sent 5,000 nautical miles from their base in England to Libya and back (a flight made longer when France, cooperative as usual, refused to let the planes fly through French airspace). The raid was conducted in complete radio silence, and one of the F-111 pilots had never even seen a KC-10 before, but the refuelings went off without a hitch.
Both the KC-10 and the KC-135 worked hard during the 1991 Gulf War, in which tankers completed more than 85,000 refuelings, pumping more than 1.2 billion pounds (185 million gallons) of fuel. The postwar Air Power Survey stated: “The success of the aerial attacks also depended on the ability to mass formations of aircraft, made possible by an extensive network of aerial refueling KC-135 aircraft.”
Piloting tankers remains a risky job. Early in the Afghan conflict a KC-130 Hercules tanker crashed in the mountains of Pakistan, killing all seven Marines on board. In the landlocked battles of Afghanistan and Iraq, everything moves by air, and that demands tankers to keep the planes moving. Nevertheless, U.S. forces rely on only about 60 KC-10s and 550 KC-135s, which by military standards are antiques, if not dinosaurs. In fact, as lain Murray of UPI recently wrote, “The U.S. government operates over 80 percent of the 1950s-era 707-class aircraft still flying today, largely due to the tanker fleet.”
Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche told Air Force magazine, “My fear is that our tanker fleet could be the [lost] horseshoe nail that could cause the horse to tumble, the king to fall, and the kingdom to come apart.” The Air Force plans to convert Boeing 767s for use as tankers, though the program is being held up by accusations of wasteful spending. Whatever the outcome of this debate, the durability of the current tanker fleet shows how well designed they were for an unglamorous but indispensable job that allows America to project overwhelming airpower to the remotest parts of the earth.