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History of aerial refueling: Fueling the fighters

  • Published
  • By Mark L. Morgan
  • Hq. Air Mobility Command History Office
Editor's note: This is the fifth article in a series of articles highlighting the history of aerial refueling and the important role aerial refueling has played in American military history.

Strategic Air Command entered the 1950s on a roll. It operated a growing fleet of tanker aircraft, and the first jet bombers -- commencing with the B-47 Stratojet -- were coming on line.

The combination of tankers and bombers made SAC a truly global strike force, with mission duration only limited by crew endurance. However, one question remained: what was the proper role of SAC's small escort fighter force?

During World War II, fighters, such as the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, escorted bombers over their targets. However, the postwar jet-propelled fighters, such as the F-80 Shooting Star and F-84 Thunderjet, used fuel at a much higher rate and were, therefore, range-limited. They could no longer escort the bombers.

To be sure, the Air Force regularly transferred fighter units overseas, particularly after the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. The standard method involved using U.S. Navy or Navy contact vessels -- primarily World War II-era escort aircraft carriers -- to physically ship the aircraft. This took weeks, and -- more often than not and despite protective efforts -- upon arrival the fighters required extensive maintenance because of salt air exposure and corrosion.

The answer was simple: find a way to extend the range of fighter aircraft. Initial efforts included projects with the names of Tip-Tow, Tom-Tom and FICON (for "Fighter Conveyor"). These did not involve actual in-flight refueling, but instead involved literally "towing" fighter aircraft, albeit under rather unusual circumstances.

Project Tip-Tow employed a modified B-29 and two F-84Ds, which attached to the bomber at either wingtip through a clamping device. Project Tom-Tom, tested in 1953, was similar and involved the coupling of RF-84F reconnaissance aircraft to the wing tips of a modified B-36. The FICON proposal involved the actual carriage of a modified RF-84F in the bomb bay of a B-36, slung beneath a trapeze.

During testing, flying the fighters in close proximity to large bombers and hooking up proved supremely challenging, even in perfect weather. A fatal crash involving the Tip-Tow B-29 and one of the F-84s in April 1953 reinforced this and led to the cancellation of Tip-Tow. Doing such hook-ups operationally, possibly in combat and most likely at night and in bad weather, made the efforts even more risky. Fortunately, advances in air refueling of fighters made all three of these difficult and complex "towing" methods superfluous.

As during the early development of SAC tankers, the United Kingdom's Flight Refueling Limited, or FRL, led the way. The company fabricated external drop tanks with integral refueling probes, suitable for using with the probe and drogue system. On Oct. 22, 1950 -- barely four months after the start of the Korean War - U.S. Air Force Col. David C. Schilling used this system to make the first non-stop, air-refueled flight by a fighter across the Atlantic Ocean.

Colonel Schilling commanded the 62nd Fighter Squadron and later the 56th Fighter Group in the European Theater during World War II. In July 1948 he led the F-80s of the 56th Fighter Wing from Selfridge Air Force Base, Mich., across the Atlantic to the Royal Air Force installation at Odiham, England. Accomplished under the title of Fox Able One ("Fighters Atlantic, Operation No. 1"), Schilling's pilots went over via landings and fueling stops at Bangor, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; Bluie West 1/Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Meeks Field, Iceland; and RAF Stornaway, the Hebrides. Because of stops and the weather, the 16 fighters took 10 days to get to Europe.

In October 1950, using aerial refueling, Colonel Schilling made the trip in the reverse direction in an incredible 10 hours and 8 minutes.

After launching from RAF Manston in two modified F-84Es, Schilling and Colonel William Ritchie refueled from FRL-operated Avro Lincoln bombers/tankers over Scotland and Iceland. Unfortunately, one of Ritchie's probes sustained damage during the contact over Iceland. Unable to take on fuel, he literally ran out of gas and ejected. Fortunately, he was quickly rescued.

With the Korean War well underway and its high demand for fighter aircraft, the Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, designed additional external drop tanks with fixed refueling probes and dispatched them to the theater. Republic Aviation, the manufacturer of the Thunderjet, concurrently started delivery of the F-84G with a refueling receptacle in the leading edge of the left wing compatible with SAC's boom-equipped KB-29Ps.

On July 6, 1951, the first combat air refueling of fighter-type aircraft took place over Korea. Three RF-80As launched from Taegu with the modified tip-tanks and rendezvoused with a tanker offshore of Wonsan, North Korea. Through in-flight refueling, the RF-80s effectively doubled their range, which enabled them to photograph valuable targets in North Korea.

The big test came with plans for the movement of an entire fighter wing to the Korean theater. On July 4, 1952, 60 F-84Gs launched from Turner AFB, Ga., and flew the 1,800 nautical miles to Travis AFB, Calif., non-stop. Refueled en route by 24 KB-29Ps over Texas, this served as the rehearsal for the main event, designated Fox Peter One.

Organized by Colonel Schilling -- who now served as the commander of Turner AFB's 31st Fighter Escort Wing -- Fox Peter One kicked off on July 6 when the first of the 31st FEWs three squadrons of F-84Gs headed west from Georgia to Travis. Throughout the following three days, each squadron refueled from KB-29Ps over Texas.

At 1,860 nautical miles and with no alternate landing sites or divert fields, the flight from Travis AFB to Hickam AFB (Territory of Hawaii), was the longest of the trans-Pacific flight. All of the fighters made it and then island-hopped the rest of the way to Yokota Air Base, Japan, via Midway Island, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Guam, and Iwo Jima. The arrival of the last aircraft in Japan on July 16, less than two weeks after leaving Georgia, marked Fox Peter One as a resounding success.

The following October, the 27th FEW from Bergstrom AFB, Texas, replicated the route and in-flight refuelings and relieved the 31st FEW. The 27th FEW's commander was Col. Donald Blakeslee, another famous World War II pilot and ace.

More record flights followed, including Operation Longstride in October 1953, which saw Colonel Schilling's wing -- now designated the 31st Strategic Fighter Wing -- dispatch eight F-84Gs to Nouasseur Air Base, French Morocco. The aircraft covered 3,800 miles in 10 hours and 20 minutes, thanks to in-flight refueling by brand-new SAC KC-97s in the vicinity of Bermuda and the Azores.

Concurrently, Col. Thayer S. Olds, commander of Turner AFB's 40th Air Division, led 20 F-84Gs of the 508th SFW to RAF Lakenheath, England. Three of the fighters landed at Keflavik, Iceland, because of mechanical problems; however, the remaining aircraft successfully hooked up with the orbiting KC-97 tankers and made it to England in one flight.

In 1957, SAC's fighter units transferred to Tactical Air Command or were inactivated as part of a reorganization of Air Force strategic and tactical assets. However, they set the standard; by the end of the 1950s, trans-oceanic flights became commonplace. The Air Force never bought another fighter aircraft without in-flight refueling capability; a capability which proved its worth a few years later when Vietnam heated up.