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News > Veterans of Vietnam highlight war's air refueling efforts during 'Living Legends' speaker series
Story at a Glance
 The panel of "living legends" included retired Cols. Robert Dawson and Gerald Flanagan, retired Maj. Donald Burgett, and retired Chief Master Sgt. John Akers. Several Vietnam-era operations were covered, to include ARC LIGHT, YOUNG TIGER and LINEBACKER I and II. The four panelists recalled their first-hand experience in what some people have referred to Vietnam to as the "first tanker war."
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Tanker Living Legends Speaker Series - Vietnam
Retired Col. Gerald Flanagan (far right) talks about his experiences in air refueling during the Vietnam War as part of the Air Mobility Command Tanker "Living Legends" Speaker Series in the Global Reach Planning Center at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., on Sept. 24, 2009. Colonel Flanagan was station at Kadena Air Base, Japan, during the Vietnam conflict as a tanker maintenance officer. He helped coordinate maintenance efforts for as many as 105 tankers that operated from Kadena for the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)
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Veterans of Vietnam highlight war's air refueling efforts during 'Living Legends' speaker series

Posted 9/29/2009   Updated 9/29/2009 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

9/29/2009 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.  -- Bringing together a retired tanker pilot, navigator, boom operator and maintenance officer, Air Mobility Command's Tanker "Living Legends" Speaker Series highlighted air refueling efforts during the Vietnam War in Scott AFB's Global Reach Planning Center on Sept. 24.

The panel of "living legends" included retired Cols. Robert Dawson and Gerald Flanagan, retired Maj. Donald Burgett, and retired Chief Master Sgt. John Akers. Several Vietnam-era operations were covered, to include ARC LIGHT, YOUNG TIGER and LINEBACKER I and II. The four panelists recalled their first-hand experience in what some people have referred to Vietnam to as the "first tanker war."

A pilot's perspective
Colonel Dawson, who flew more than 150 missions as a KC-135 pilot for both Operations YOUNG TIGER and ARC LIGHT, said the use of the tanker in Vietnam was considered ground-breaking in many ways. Particularly, he said how in operations such as YOUNG TIGER it was the first time tankers were critical for tactical support.

"When Young Tiger began, the role of the KC-135 began to change," Colonel Dawson said. "It was unique because it was all fighter support."

In addition to it being a "great experience" for him, Colonel Dawson recalled the stress of long missions. He said every day, when flying the KC-135 out on a mission, they had to "break ground" with the KC-135 at its maximum gross weight of fuel capacity to head out and top off fighters such as the F-105 Thunderchief or an F-4 Phantom.

"If you flew out of Kadena (Air Base, Japan), you were going to fly at least a 12-hour mission," Colonel Dawson said. "Those were interesting times and we put a lot of wear and tear on the KC-135."

Being a pilot of a tanker was no less scary than those of fighters or bombers, Colonel Dawson said. He recalled one mission where he was flying his KC-135 in an air refueling track in the Gulf of Tonkin which had North Vietnam to the east and China to the north and west and the only way out was to fly south.

In that mission, he and his crew had just turned their tanker south when they learned there were enemy fighters, or "bandits" headed in his plane's direction. Because of placement of friendly planes weren't immediately nearby, he said the situation was getting too close for comfort as the enemy fighters approached.

"Thankfully, the Navy scrambled two F-4s who scared away those bandits," Colonel Dawson said. "They were probably within 10 miles when the F-4s scared them away. I have a special place (in my heart) for those Navy guys."

Navigating a new frontier
For Major Burgett, by the time he flew in KC-135 missions in Vietnam, he was as experienced in the air refueling business as they come. He retired from active duty in 1970 as a career tanker navigator who not only flew in the KC-135, but also the propeller-driven KC-97 Stratotanker.

Major Burgett joined the 68th Air Refueling Squadron at Lake Charles AFB, La., in December 1954 as a lieutenant and he served with many Airmen who had fought and served in World War II. It made him appreciate how important his job was in the air refueling business. "I had a lot to live up to" he said.

In 1965, Major Burgett was stationed at the 908th Air Refueling Squadron at Kinchloe AFB, Mich. It was that same year he made his first of many deployments to Southeast Asia, to include operating out of Kadena AB, which would take place five years before he retired.

There was also one little-known contribution that tanker navigators contributed to Vietnam air operations. "Navigators established our own radar beacon signals to distinguish one tanker from another," Major Burgett said. "It was a way for us to tell each other apart and gave us our own unique radar signature."

In his experience, the major said successful tanker operations in Vietnam were due to a great effort by everyone -- especially maintainers.

"All in all, it was a superb (tanker) operation," said Major Burgett, whose career also included supporting the November 1956 mission of Strategic Air Command B-52s circumnavigating the globe. "And more importantly, the maintenance support we had was exceptional."

A 'booming' number of missions
In support of the Vietnam air refueling operations, Chief Akers flew 167 combat missions as a KC-135 boom operator. For any aircrew member, that can be considered a lot of war sorties.

Like the other aircrew members on the panel, Chief Akers flew many of his missions from Kadena AB. The base held a large tanker presence with sometimes more than 100 tankers for Southeast Asia air refueling missions. "When I got there, I never saw so many tankers in my life," he said.

In all of his flying operations for the Vietnam War, the chief said "no two missions were the same" and each had their degree of challenges.

"Refueling the fighters needed a different technique than a B-52," said Chief Akers who had more than 5,000 career flying hours as a boom operator. "Night air refueling was also extremely challenging."

The chief said the F-105 fighters were the easiest to refuel, and as the years have passed since his Vietnam experience, he's seen the progression of tanker operations improve. "We're doing it better today," he said.

Like Major Burgett, Chief Akers shared his appreciation for the efforts of the maintenance Airmen who kept the tankers flying for whatever operation they were tasked to support.

"What we did could not have been done without the crew chiefs," Chief Akers said. "They took on tasks they were never prepared to take on and did it successfully."

Meeting the maintenance challenge
Colonel Flanagan was just a lieutenant when he was assigned to the 376th Organizational Maintenance Squadron at Kadena AB in 1972. In this assignment, he saw his responsibilities grow from caring for 11 tankers to up to 105 air refuelers during the Operation BULLET SHOT deployments. That operation, which also encompassed aircraft from other Southeast Asia bases, supported the heavy bombing in Southeast Asia as well as radio relay and strategic reconnaissance missions.

Through the course of operations, he said the maintainers stood up to the challenge of a high operations tempo quite successfully and made the impossible happen.

"At its height, the surge was about 100 tanker sorties a day," Colonel Flanagan said. "Every day someone would say, 'Gentlemen - tomorrow is a maximum effort!' I would say that's what they got from us every day."

Colonel Flanagan said although there were a lot of sorties being flown out of Kadena, many other sorties were being flown all over the Pacific theater of operations from places such as Guam, the Philippines and Thailand. "We put out a lot of sorties at Kadena, but other places were just as busy," he said.

In Operation LINEBACKER II, which took place between Dec. 18 and Dec. 29, 1972, Colonel Flanagan said tanker sorties reached a height of 134 a day. During that operation, history shows a total of 741 B-52 sorties were dispatched to bomb North Vietnam causing severe damage to North Vietnam's infrastructure. The operation itself brought the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table, and in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed signaling the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"We did that war on the backs of the crew chiefs," Colonel Flanagan said. "What they did was truly remarkable."

Parting thoughts
Each of the Vietnam veterans on the panel said their experience changed them in many ways. Whether it was their first operation they supported, the many different planes they refueled or fixed, or the people they met, a unanimous thought was mentioned by each member of the panel.

"I think I can speak for all of us when I say the best feeling we had was supporting the missions that brought the POWs (prisoners of war) home," Colonel Dawson said. "That was something I will never forget."

In all, during the Vietnam War, KC-135 tankers flew 194,687 sorties with an average of 21,631 sorties per year, according to the Air Force history book, "75 Years of In-flight Refueling, Highlights, 1923-1998." The tankers executed 813,378 in-flight refuelings and in total, they delivered 1.4 billion gallons of fuel weighing almost 9 billion pounds.

"All of this transpired invisibly," the book states. "The news media rarely paid attention to tanker aircraft; its representatives only saw the big refuelers parked on the ground and, to the extent that they thought of them at all, assumed them to be part of the landscape." To the panel members, the memory of their experience is as if it was yesterday.

The next session of the Tanker Living Legends Speaker Series is slated for Oct. 21 which will cover air refueling during Operation DESERT ONE. The purpose of the series is to commemorate 80 years of air refueling history starting with the Question Mark -- the six-day flight that proved air refueling was possible in extending global reach around the world.

2/6/2011 11:05:35 AM ET
i worked for lt flanagan at kadena. super officer to work for glad to see he ret a col
jack barnes, joplinmo
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