Talking Proud --- Military

“Nobody kicks ass without a tanker’s gas ... nobody.”

By Ed Marek, editor


USAF KC-135R Aerial Refueling Tanker

October 6, 2010

Back in January 2008, I received an e-mail from Lori T. Davis, maiden name Elwood, “Wood” for short, shown here in a 1984 photo. She was an Inflight Refueling Specialist on the KC-135 tanker for the USAF, known as “the boomer,” and among the first women to get such a job. She remarked she had plenty of war stories. I held on to her e-mail for all this time wanting to do a story on our strategic air-to-air refueling.

In reading her e-mail, I was reminded that as an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Cadet (AFROTC) we were put aboard a KC-35 tanker out of Plattsburgh AFB, New York, to go on a refueling mission for a B-52.


The chief NCO on the flight, of course, played with us a bit. The photo shows a Plattsburgh-based KC-135; the red arrow points to the aft escape hatch.

He showed us how to roll out of the escape exit at the rear side of the aircraft should we get into trouble. Here you see Chief Master Sgt Samuel Davies, a boom operator on the KC-135R, shutting the side hatch before take off. I believe it is the aft escape hatch. If you try to envision his directions, he told us to do the following: stand facing the open hatch, cross your arms, left arm over the right arm and hold on to the side of the hatch with each hand; cross your feet, again left foot over the right foot and to the right of the right foot; simply twist your body out so that you go out back first. After each of us practiced it, he then told us that the likelihood was very high that we would be cut to pieces by the rear horizontal stabilizer once we left the aircraft! The year was 1966. I have read that as of August 1968, only two crewmembers had been able to safely bail out of a KC-135. I recall the chief telling us something like that after he was finished. He also mentioned that he would hope such a circumstance would happen after we had refueled our target aircraft because there was a whole bunch of fuel right beneath the deck on which we were standing. All of this caught our attention, but off we went.



This is a very nice graphic view of the rear of the KC-135. Nr. 244 marks the boomer’s window through which to observe the receiving aircraft. Nr. 245 marks a side window which the boomer uses mainly to watch the receiving aircraft depart the area after disconnect, or the boomer will see the receiver aircraft that has been waiting off the KC-135’s wing maneuvering into position for his turn. Nr. 243 shows the boom in its stowed position. At the very end of that boom, you can see the tip of the section that will telescope into the receiver aircraft and unload the fuel. Also note a small wing coming out from the boom; you can see the tip of another such wing on the other side. These wings help the boomer fly his boom into position. Last, note Nr. 246 to the far left of this graphic. It marks one of five underfloor aft fuel tanks. There are four more underfloor forward fuel tanks, in the main under the large cargo hatch between the cockpit and the wings. All together, these tanks can hold 200,000 lbs. of fuel.



Above the floor is a substantial amount of cargo space which can be configured to carry passengers, cargo, or both.






The boom operator was in the prone position to the far rear of the aircraft to operate the refueling probe, connect to the target aircraft, load him up with fuel, and disconnect in close coordination with the B-52 and KC-135 drivers to assure there is a clean break-away. I was fortunate to lie down on a mat next to the boom operator when we refueled the B-52, much as was the case for the guest flying on this mission you see to the upper right.


KC-135R boom operator station

This is a photo of the boomer’s station that he operates while lying down in the prone position. The large handle grip to the left is what the boomer uses to telescope the boom refueling probe into the receiver’s fuel receptacle. The above four photos of the inside of the aircraft are presented by AirPigZ and are shots of a KC-135 belonging to the 434th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) at Grissom Air Reserve Base, about 12 miles north of Kokomo, Indiana. AirPigZ presents a lot more excellent photos of the aircraft and crew, which we commend to you.

I remember this mission, back in 1966, like it was yesterday. My adrenalin was flowing. The first thing that stood out was that we were refueling a B-52 that was part of the 24-7 cycle of nuclear loaded B-52s that flew the periphery of the Soviet Union, ready to go in at a moment’s notice. So our mission was not a training mission; it was a real operational mission. I thought, this is the real McCoy.” Second, it was a nighttime mission. We were out over the North Atlantic Ocean someplace. There was nothing out there.



All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, we spotted a B-52 nuclear bomber approaching. I was young, but I found it remarkable that such a large aircraft came out of nowhere, eased on up to our KC-135, looked so small, and, I could see the pilot and the co-pilot. I have Photoshopped a daylight photo that you see here to make it look like night. My recollection is that it was far darker than this, almost pitch black. Of course, the B-52 had lights blinking on his wing tips and there were, I believe, lights surrounding his receptacle. I cannot remember for sure, but I think the boomer put out some light as well. I did not know it at the time, but there were lights under the boomer on the belly of the KC-135 that give signals to the receiving pilots with regard to getting into and staying in the refueling envelope. We’ll talk more about that later.



I will never forget seeing this Big Guy approach us. I was amazed that the two aircraft found each other, not knowing much about refueling tracks, mission planning, and communications procedures. I have also Photoshopped this daylight photo. It shows a KC-135 from the 28th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron refueling a B-52 from the 40th Air Expeditionary Wing, during the initial days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. On my mission many years earlier, we could see the cockpit lights in the B-52 and could make out the faces of the two pilots.

The boom operator did his thing with incredible professionalism, guiding his own pilot and the B-52 pilot as he put the probe spot on into the receptacle of the B-52 and then refueling him. I don’t remember how much fuel he gave him, other than it was a lot. And it seemed like it only took a few minutes.

Then came some excitement. The boom operator coordinated the disconnect with both pilots. As I recall, the KC-135 would accelerate a bit and climb, while the B-52 was to decelerate a bit and drop down in altitude. That did not happen. Somehow, when the boomer made the call for disconnect, the KC-135 accelerated and started a slow climb, the B-52 broke away, decelerated and dropped down a bit, but then suddenly increased his altitude and speed and smashed into the boom as the boomer was trying to withdraw it back. It was not a tumultuous bang, but the two aircraft did collide a bit. The boomer said a few words under his breath, and then gave instructions in a very professional way. I was impressed. I was surprised I didn’t vomit from fear!

I’ll pause for just a moment here. I was a university senior on this mission, and would become an USAF second lieutenant at graduation. This was an incredible lesson for me regarding the professionalism of the enlisted force and the massive amount of responsibility they shoulder. As time would pass, this lesson would simply repeat itself over and over.

So, Airman First Class (A1C) Lori Wood Davis, let’s do a story on strategic air-to-air refueling. Thanks for motivating me. My apologies for taking so long but I had to slip in my war story!

Lori conveyed to me some good ol’ USAF refueling jargon which I’ll use to get us started:

“Let’s face it… I laid on my belly and passed gas… I stuck the pole in the hole… I was chauffeured to work and back by officers...When I did get out (of the USAF), I married a Boom Operator. Our kids are ‘Baby Boomers.’ Ha!”

Let’s begin at a top level, the matter of moving fuel around the world for our military forces in general. The Department of Defense (DoD) spends about $20 billion per year to buy 4.6 billion gallons of fuel that has to be transported around the world. USAF commands in the Pacific and in the Central Command area of responsibility (AOR) use about half that total, 1.22 billion gallons of all types of fuel. The Pacific Air Force (PACAF) has 10 major bases, four smaller bases and 15 remote bases. The Air Force Central Command (AFCENT) supports 14 bases in eight countries. The entire process is complex. At the moment, moving fuel to Afghanistan is the most challenging.


Military Sealift Command (MSC) tanker USNS Richard G. Mathiessen is one of five MSC-owned and -chartered tankers that moved 1.7 billion gallons of fuel for the Department of Defense in FY 2006.


US military fuel convoy

The main means of transportation is by shipborne tankers, and then truck. The war in landlocked Afghanistan has presented problems because there are no ports in Afghanistan, so the fuel has to go to ports in Pakistan and then be trucked through Pakistan to Afghanistan, a not all together safe route. US forces are not able to safeguard the roads in Pakistan. Old hands will recall how important it was to safeguard main highway routes in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) during the Indochina War.

All aircraft have fuel tanks that can carry only so much fuel, which dictates their range. American fliers saw as early as the 1920s that they had to find a way to extend the range of their aircraft, and air-to-air refueling was the best way to do it. Following WWII, the US emerged as a global power, which meant its aircraft had to have global reach.


Airman Mark Heitkamp, USAF, pulls a fuel service hose from an R-11 fuel truck in preparation for refueling a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft with JP-8 fuel at an air base in Southwest Asia on May 31, 2006.

The principal gas types include JP-8 (Jet Propellant 8) for fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, diesel for ground vehicles and generators, aviation gasoline (Avgas) for some remotely piloted vehicles, and some standard automotive gas (Mogas) for a small number of vehicles. Once again, old hands will remember good old JP-4 used in the Indochina War. You might recall the memorable quote from the movie,
Apocalypse Now, made in 1978, where Robert Duvall said, in his role as Lt. Colonel Kilgore, said, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Well, those of us living on an air base in the war often said, “I love the smell of JP-4 in the morning.”

Right now, and this is a hot-button issue for the USAF, the air refueling fleet must rely on the KC-135, a modified Boeing 707, and the KC-10, a modified DC-10. The USAF operates 474 tankers, of which about 236 are KC-135s.



The KC-135 Stratotanker was the Air Force’s first jet powered tanker and has been serving the USAF since 1957, about 53 years. Projections are the USAF will be flying them perhaps to 2045, another 35 years, to wit, 86 year old aircraft. Of course, the aircraft have gone through numerous modifications including new engines. We are up to the KC-135T model. As you go through this report, you might notice different engines on different photos.





Originally, all KC-135s were equipped with Pratt & Whitney J-57-P-59W turbojet engines. A prototype is shown as the first photo, a KC-135 employing the engine in the second photo.




In the 1980s, some 157 KC-135s were re-engined with Pratt & Whitney TF-33-PW-102 engines. Again, top photo shows the engine alone, the bottom photo mounted on the KC-135.




In 1984, the USAF delivered the first CFM56-2 engines to the KC-135 fleet. The engine allows the aircraft to off-load more fuel to receiver aircraft and provides extended range. Again, top photo shows the engine alone, the bottom photo mounted on the KC-135.

Many feel the KC-135 re-engining program has been one of the most successful modernization programs in USAF history. That said, Gaddis Gann, the chief engineer at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma’s 827th Aircraft Sustainment Group—the KC-135’s depot, has said, “Nobody’s ever flown a modern jet transport for 80 years.” He says there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding whether the KC-135 can make it that long. Commercial jets go from 20-30 years.

JP-8 is the main fuel that the KC-135 aircraft carry. But the KC-135Q must carry JP-7, a special fuel required by the SR-71. It only refuels the SR-71, to my knowledge.


The KC-10 Extender was selected by the USAF in a competition in 1977, in response to rising doubts about the capabilities of the KC-135, centered mostly on a need to carry more fuel to support longer flights and the increasing age of the KC-135 fleet. The KC-10 first flew in July 1980, and began service in 1981. There are 59 in service as of 2010.

Marking a change from her original role, the KC-135 has been used more for tactical assignments while the KC-10 has been used to ferry large numbers of fighters over long distances and to support strategic transports. Recall that the KC-135 was mission essential to support the B-52 nuclear bomber fleet flying 24-7 around the Soviet Union waiting for the call. Some B-52s still have a nuclear attack mission, but most are now serving in tactical roles.

So those are the two main aircraft. We’ll focus primarily on the KC-135. Let’s talk about the refueling operation.

Christopher Bolkcom, a specialist in national defense, wrote a report updated in June , 2006,
“Air Force Aerial Refueling Methods: Flying Boom versus Hose-and-Drogue.” We’ll extract highlights from that report.

There are two ways to refuel in the air: the boom and the hose-and-drogue.


KC-10 refueling B-52 with boom

The boom is a rigid, telescoping tube that the boomer operates, extends and inserts into the receptacle of the aircraft being refueled.


The hose-and-drogue employs a flexible hose that trails from the tanker with a funnel at its end into which the aircraft to be refueled inserts a probe to take on the fuel. Some KC-135 flying booms were outfitted with a hose-and-drogue adapter as you see in this photo.


Closeup of RAF Tornado GR4 refueling from the drogue of an RA VC-10 tanker.

A single flying boom can transfer fuel at about 6,000 lbs. per minute, while a single hose-and-drogue between 1,500 and 2,000 lbs. of fuel per minutes. Experts assert that the boom is not as useful for fighters as the hose-and-drogue since the fighters cannot accept fuel at the boom’s maximum rate. That said, fighters use it all the time, though for long trans-oceanic flights the scheduling of refueling for the fighters can be a headache. Debate rages to this date regarding which system is the preferred system. A consensus seems to have developed that the hose-and-drogue is best for fighters, while the boom is ideal for the “heavies.” There are tons of studies on the problem sitting on dusty shelves. There is no issue when it comes to refueling strategic transports and bombers. The boom is best. This is an important positive for the boom approach since strategic logistics support to troops in combat overseas has become so important and bombers of all varieties are being employed in a wide range of tactical combat assignments.

I’d like to stick with the boom to explain how the boomers operate. To keep this manageable, I also want to stick with the KC-135, since Lori Elwood Davis, the one who motivated me to write this report, was with the KC-135 and I flew aboard the mission I told you earlier on a KC-135 with the boom.


Staff Sgt. Geoffrey R. Schultz, 905th Air Refueling Squadron boom operator, reviews the operating instructions for a KC-135 Stratotanker tasked to refuel a B-52 Stratofortress.


The boom operator can be a young first-term airman or a chief master sergeant with many years tucked under the belt. Their job carries a lot of responsibility. For starters, they must also qualify as loadmasters. The boomer inspects the equipment from start to finish, constantly checking it out. A sassy boomer will tell you he-she directs the tanker and receiver aircraft through the entire process, to wit, “do what I ask (say).” Of course, the pilots are officers and decorum must be maintained, but the boomer knows who’s in charge during the refueling operation. Incredibly, most KC-135 missions only require three crew, the pilot, co-pilot, and boomer. The KC-10, seen as an intercontinental tanker, has several air crew configurations. One is for five plus six additional seats for more and four bunks for crew rest. Fourteen more seats can be added to carry support people if required, and there’s room for carrying cargo. The core crew required is four: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and boomer.

The boomer is an enlisted aviator. They compute and apply weight and balance data, procedures and techniques. They ascertain fuel, personnel, cargo, and emergency and special equipment weight and balance and assure their aircraft is loaded within specific safety limits. They have a ton of paperwork to document the data. They have to understand their tanker’s electrical and mechanical systems, flight theory, electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems related to the in-flight refueling system, weight and balance factors, cargo tie-down techniques, minor in-flight maintenance, communications and emergency procedures and using and interpreting diagrams, loading charts, technical publications and flight manuals. So this is no trivial intellectual pursuit.

I’ve canvassed research on the boomers and will highlight some interesting stories they tell.


TSgt. John Baughman “flies the boom” to refuel an F-16 during a mission supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Baughman at the time was a boom operator deployed from the 92nd Air Refueling Squadron at Fairchild AFB, Washington. The F-16 was assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The yellow arrow points to one of two small wings on the boom that enables the boomer to fly the boom to the receiver’s receptacle.

Don Cash is featured on EADS North America’s web site. He has three decades of boomer experience. He says when the tanker and receiver are connected, the boomer flies the boom. He has written:

“During this process I maintain communication with both the tanker pilot and the receiver pilot: I update the tanker pilot of the progress of the refueling operations and advise the receiver pilot on any actions required to safely maintain position within the air-refueling envelope (We will address this envelope more later). To ensure everything goes smoothly in the air, I perform many system checks and inspections prior to, during and after the flight.”

Air refueling is a dicey business. Between 1958 and 1999 some 127 KC-135s were lost. Some reasons: heavy weight on takeoff, structural failure in thunderstorm, in-flight collision with B-52, starter explosion caused fuel fire during engine start, in-flight collision with F-105, two engine loss during take-off, stalled during takeoff, nose tires blew, exploded at 13,500 ft., hard landing, engine fire, stalled in turn, landed on fire, high crosswinds, burned on ramp due to center wing explosion.

On November 6, 2006, Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt.) Anthony Trenga marked his 10,000th flying hour on the KC-135. It was a combat mission over Southwest Asia supporting air operations over Iraq. He, his pilot, Major Jason Luhn, and co-pilot Capt. Walter Ransom, all members of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, launched on time and shortly after takeoff noticed that the cabin was not pressurizing. That required they dump all their fuel and abort, or try to come up with a fix and press on. They needed cabin pressurization to reach cruising altitude which is where their refueling operation was planned. Trenga recommended they try to fix the problem. The pilots took the aircraft to 10,000 ft. so they could depressurize. They discovered that an auxiliary power unit (APU) door had not closed tightly. Once at 10,000 ft., Trenga cycled the door open and closed under the stress of listening to the noisy airflow through the APU. A further complication was that the aircraft is not as structurally stable when depressurized as it is when pressurized, so the heat was on. Despite the pressure, Trenga got the door to seal.

As it turned out, air attacks over Iraq that day were heavy, and the tanker was in high demand, causing SMSgt. Trenga to have to make a whole bunch of adjustments to meet the demand, which he did. Oh yes, Trenga was 53 at the time, another sign that “Old Guys Rule.”

The 131st Air Refueling Squadron (ARS), 157th Air Refueling Wing (ARW), an Air National Guard unit based at Portsmouth International Airport, took family members up as part of family appreciation to show them what their family members were up to when on a refueling mission.

The 157th ARW flies most of its refueling missions over New England, largely for training its own crews and receiver aircraft crews. the 157th and 101st ARW at Bangor, Maine. make up the Northeast Tanker task Force, charged to support the transatlantic air bridge of cargo and tactical aircraft transiting to and from Europe.

For this mission, they would fly two KC-135s. The mission was to refuel A-10 Warthog fighter aircraft. The two KC-135s would allow refueling two A-10s at the same time. They were scheduled to refuel over “Laser North,” a refueling box over the Mt. Washington area.

I’d like to pause for just a moment. The air-to-air refueling business is a complex one. I’d like to show you two maps that display refueling tracks over the entire United States, first the western half, then the eastern half.





I believe Mount Washington is in southwest Massachusetts and am guessing their refueling area was Nr. 631 on the map above. The weather was lousy. Nontheless, KC-135 callsign Pack 61 heavy took off first and Pack 62 followed. They flew at about 20,000 ft. and awaited a call by the A-10s that they had reached their Initial Point, at which point the boomer guides them into position. The A-10 is a slow aircraft, so the KC-135s had to slow down. That in turn created an issue for the boomer who loses airflow over the boom wings which in turn causes the boom to be sluggish when he-she flies the boom.


Family guest lying next to boomer during a refueling of an A-10 fighter. Photo credited to David O’Brien, presented by Fence Check © Copyright Liza Eckardt

The family observers were tied into the headsets and amazed at how much radio chatter the fliers had to handle. Boston center has to keep aircraft away from the refueling area, the pilots have to talk to each other, the two tankers have to talk to each other, and the boom operator has to talk to all of them plus the A-10 pilots.

The KC-135s arrived on station about 20 minutes after departure. Pack 62 flew slightly behind and above Pack 61. The A-10s carried the callsign, “Rooster Flight,” and word came from Boston Control that it had cleared Rooster into the refueling box. As the lead A-10 moved to Pack 61, he positioned himself 1,000 ft. below and awaited instructions from the boomer that would clear him for pre-contact. His wingman stood steady alongside the tanker’s starboard wing, waiting to be next. I need to interject an editorial note here. This was not a combat scenario, but there are situations in combat where fighters come up to their tankers and they are all in a hurry to get fuel because they are running on fumes. So these kinds of things can get very hectic.


A-10 fighter moving into envelope for refueling. Photo credited to David O’Brien, presented by Fence Check © Copyright Liza Eckardt

The boomer cleared the A-10 in, plugged in into the receptacle just in front of the cockpit on the A-10’s nose. In this case, they had some difficulty getting a good fit, so the A-10 would back off, come back, back off, and come back until the A-10 pilot and boomer felt the time was right. It was right, and the A-10 got his gas and dropped off and then lined up with the tanker’s port wing. The second A-10 moved into the pre-contact position and the beat goes on.


KC-135 refueling C-5 transport, “Fat Albert”

A man named Tracy, a retired military pilot, operates a web site, “About the pattern - An aviation blog.” He has a great story on line about air refueling the C-5 Galaxy strategic transport, known in the USAF as “Fat Albert.” In looking at the photo he used, you can see the incredible difference in size of the refueling and receiving aircraft! Holy moley.

I’d like to highlight some things he says.

Part of a C-5 crew’s job in pre-flight mission planning is to ascertain whether they will be air refueling. If they do need it, they notify the appropriate authorities and an air refueling track is set up and reserved for him and a tanker is assigned to the mission. The air refueling tracks are already identified and include data on altitudes, navigation points to define the track, the air refueling initial point (ARIP), contact point (ARCP) and air refueling contact time (ARCT), communications plans, and the controlling agency.

Tracy says there are two ways to bring the tanker and receiver together.

One way is to establish a point to which each aircraft flies at a certain heading and altitude. They then line up and conduct business.



The more popular way is called “point-parallel rendesvouz,” shown in the schematic presented by Tracy. The tanker takes off and flies directly to the ACRP and enters a holding pattern. The receiver flies to the ARIP at the planned altitude and speed. For a C-5, the refueling speed is 252 knots. The two aircraft establish communications 15 minutes prior to the ARCT. Once done and each aircraft has positively identified the other, the tanker advices he has accepted responsibility for separation between the two aircraft, relieving the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system of that task. ATC clears the two aircraft to commence their refueling operation. I don’t want to go into the details of how each aircraft maneuvers other than to say they have a set checklist of things they have to do to get lined up, the receiver behind the tanker. Basically, this requires the tanker to swing out of his holding pattern and maneuver himself in front of the receiver. A lot of calculations go into setting this up.

Once lined up, both aircraft should see the other, though this can be difficult if the weather is bad. Pre-contact position for the receiver is to be one mile behind and 50 feet below the tanker. Visual acquisition by both aircraft must be made prior to the pre-contact position or the mission is aborted and the receiver is diverted to an alternate airport.



Once in pre-contact position, the C-5 must run through a checklist to open the air refueling door and check the fuel systems. The C-5’s air refueling receptacle is just aft of the cockpit on top of the aircraft fuselage. The C-5 pilots have loads of lights to watch to assure the refueling operation is running smoothly. They have what is called a receiving envelope. When the C-5 gets into the center of that envelope, the boom operator flies the boom toward the receptacle opening. The receiver gets into position, and the boom operator extends the inner portion of the boom, sticking the boom into the receptacle. Latches on the C-5 the close to secure the boom in the receptacle. Once latched, the fuel begins to flow.

Should the C-5 get out of the envelope, there is an almost automatic disconnect sequence. There is also an emergency “breakaway” procedure that the boomer or the receiving pilot can initiate. The most common cause for this is if the two aircraft get too close to each other. During the breakaway, the tanker hits the throttles to full power and climbs to the top of the refueling block, usually about 1,000 ft. higher, while the receiver reduces power to idle and descends to the bottom of the refueling block, about 1,000 ft. lower. Once everyone has checked out their aircraft, and there has been no damage, they go at the refueling process again.

Tracy’s report says the C-5 pilot flies the aircraft manually while the KC-135 is on auto-pilot. Should you read Tracy’s report, you will see that the design of the C-5 is such that it can create some bow forces that cause the KC-135’s tail to lift up. Changes had to be made to the KC-135 to accommodate this issue.

Tracy mentions that this entire exercise is one of formation flying. There are many forces that bear on the aircraft involved that require keen flying sense by the pilots and the boomer. He commented in one instance that the C-5s were painted black, they were flying a nighttime mission with no moon and there was a cloud cover, so nothing on the ground was visible. When the C-5 showed up, it seemed to the boomer that this huge black aircraft came out of nowhere and he had the sense that it was going to smash into the KC-135. So the boomer called for a breakaway, which was not necessary. He had never refueled a C-5 before. Fortunately, he had his instructor with him and the instructor brought everybody back together and they completed the refueling mission.

Tracy goes on to talk about doing all this with thunderstorms all around them. I commend his stories to you.


KC-135 refueling a B-52 over Afghanistan

Capt. T.W. Sherman, Jr.’s story, “The Tough and Ticklish job of Air Refueling,” was published in the March 1961 edition of Popular Mechanics. Sherman was a B-52 pilot and said:

“Any SAC (Strategic Air Command) bomber pilot will tell you that he sweats out air refueling more than anything else. It takes all the skill and guts he’s got to wrestle the big bomber in behind a tanker where a slip can mean a flaming disaster.”

He quoted a tanker pilot saying, “You’d never get me back there to watch a refueling. It scares the hell out of me!”

Sherman tells of his first air refueling mission. The KC-135 was over Montpelier, Vermont with 30,000 lbs. of fuel for Sherman’s B-52. His radar operator reported getting the tanker’s beacon at 180 miles. The beacon puts a code on the radar operator’s scope which enables him to identify the aircraft as his KC-135. As an aside, the radar operator is a deck below the two pilots and cannot see out of the aircraft. This is a photo of Capt. Andy McElaine in that role. Soon thereafter, the B-52 is within 80 miles and commences his descent. Sherman banked the B-52 to meet up with the tanker. He commented the bomber seemed hard to handle at the time. Sherman slowed down to 250 knots. The boomer on the tanker reported the boom is down and the tanker is ready for contact. Sherman pulled in a little closer and spotted a suite of red and green lights controlled by the boom that tell him to fly up or down, fore or aft.



Sherman was well aware of the challenge coming. He had to put his B-52 into the envelope which is 12 feet long, 14 feet high, and 21 feet wide. He knew he had to keep his bomber inside that envelope. Making this even more challenging is that the KC-135 ahead of him produced a slipstream that created a downdraft in the area of contact. So Sherman had to stay in just the right position or risk a downwash that would cause his nose to “zoom up.” If that happened, he had a procedure he must execute immediately to avoid a collision. Under normal circumstances, this massive B-52 and the fuel-laden KC-135 are within 25 ft. of each other.

Sherman eased the B-52 closer and the boomer raised the boom to clear Sherman’s windshield. Sherman felt the effects of turbulence and downwash and felt like the KC-135 was bobbing around all over. The boomer kept talking to Sherman giving directions such as, “Forward ten, up four, forward five, up two, stand by for contact. Contact tanker.” Then the boomer noted Sherman was going too fast, and told him, “Back two, back four, disconnect.” Sherman tried two more times but each time was still going too fast. He commented:

“I’m dripping sweat. My breath is rasping against my oxygen mask.”

His instructor pilot took the wheel and demonstrated to Sherman how to act as though the envelope had walls he could not penetrate. The instructor then told him to try it again. Sherman got it in there perfectly, and started taking on fuel at a rate of 600-900 gallons per minute. They stayed hooked for six minutes, which Sherman described as “long minutes.”

Unfortunately, Sherman began over-controlling his bomber and they disconnected. He brought her in again, connected, and took on more fuel. The tanker pilot told him he had taken 20,000 lbs. and had 10,000 more to go. Sherman, saying he employed his “last reserves of strength,” pulled up again, connected and took on the final 10,000 lbs.

One can only imagine what was going through the mind of the boomer during this flight. From Sherman’s description, he was very professional, always guiding Sherman. What might have been said under his breath, well, we’ll leave it there.

Another moment to pause. We Americans like to talk in terms of gallons, not pounds of fuel. The problem is that different countries define what comprises a gallon differently. For example, a US gallon is 0.82 of an Imperial gallon. And, of course, many countries use liters. So aviators switched to pounds of fuel as the measure. The tricky part of this is if the crew has to convert whatever their measure is on the ground to pounds. This conversion as to be absolutely correct or there is a risk of running out or carrying too much.


KC-135 refueling an E-4B Advanced Airborne National Command Post

John Yang wrote, “Refueling at 25,000 ft.”, a story about a refueling mission for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s E-4B aircraft, a customized B-747. Yang was aboard the E-4B. Three KC-135 tankers were employed. The E-4B had already been aloft for 7.5 hours and needed fuel.

The tankers flew in formation, their altitudes about 500 ft. apart, one “on-top” the other. The mission was conducted at 25,000 ft. altitude. As the E-4B approached the first tanker, the E-4B pilot took manual control of his aircraft and maneuvered into position. Yang estimated that by the time they pulled up to the tanker, the tanker was about 12 ft. above and just ahead of the E-4B. As an aside, those measurements seem exaggerated, when looking at the photo above. The tendency is to look at the distance of the boom. But look carefully at the distance between the E-4B’s cockpit and the horizontal stabilizers and tail. They’re pretty darn close.

Yang described the fill-up in terms we have already gone through. What he noted that was new for this report is that as the E-4B took on fuel, it got heavier and wanted to fly lower and slower. As the tanker emptied fuel, he got lighter and wanted to fly faster and higher. Pilots of both aircraft have to plan and compensate for that. Then, Yang remarked that the boom had a bad seal, and jet fuel began spraying all over the windshield of the E-4B. The wipers cleaned off a lot, but visibility was reduced such as it might be in a storm. During this same first refueling, there was an accidental disconnection and the E-4B had to maneuver back into position. Yang said it was “a rather bumpy ride, a bit like riding waves on a choppy sea. The pilots call it ‘dolphining,’ and describe by arcing a hand up and down like a dolphin playing in the waves.”

Once the tanker was empty, they went through the same routine two more times with the other two tankers.

I had read in an earlier story that when both the tanker and receiver aircraft were flying a race-track orbit, they would turn together at the end of the race track to head the other direction, and continue refueling. Frankly, I did not believe it, so I did not say anything. But I came across a very credible source that confirmed that is indeed what they do. We also learned in this particular report that an F-15 fighter can take aboard 4,500 lbs. of gas in about 90 seconds, depending on how the F-15 pilot has all his fuel pumps operating.


A flight of USAF F-4C Phantom fighter bombers refuel from a KC-135 tanker aircraft in the 1960s before making a strike against communist targets in North Vietnam. The Phantoms are fully loaded with 750 pound general purpose bombs and rockets. You can bet these guys were happy to see their tanker on the way home after burning off nearly all their fuel on their attack runs.

Walter J. Boyne wrote an article entitled, “
The Young Tigers and Their Friends” published in the June 1998 edition of Air Force Magazine. He wrote:

“The heartfelt phrase ‘Thanks, that's a save!’ was heard more than 500 times during the Vietnam War as hardworking ‘Young Tiger’ crews of KC-135 tankers moved into harm's way, delivering salvation to strike aircraft perilously low on fuel. Ironically, many of those saves were never officially recorded simply because they occurred when the tankers left their normal orbits to enter enemy airspace, in violation of standing instructions.”

He wrote about Major John H. Casteel’s KC-135 “saving six Navy aircraft with a complex and totally unscheduled refueling.”


Camouflaged F-104C Starfighter out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, 1967

His mission was scheduled to refuel two F-104 Starfighters using the drogue adapter he fortunately had installed on his boom ship. As scheduled, he took care of the two F-104s.


KA-3B, VAQ-131, Carrier Air Wing Five, USS Hancock, 1967

Then an emergency call came in saying two Navy KA-3 tankers from the carrier USS
Hancock, which also needed the drogue, were running out of fuel themselves. The first KA-3 “Whale” hooked up with only three minutes fuel left. Technical problems precluded him from using his refueling tanks. Then came the second Whale and he got his goodies too.


F-8 Crusaders in formation


Once done, another emergency call came in saying two Navy F-8 “Crusader” fighters were approaching fuel starvation and he refueled them. Colin Bakse, in his book,
Airlift tanker: history of US airlift and tanker forces, adds a little to the Boyne version (search for Casteel). Bakse said the F-8s were so low that they took fuel from the KA-3s while the KA-3s were themselves taking fuel from the KC-135!


Navy F-4 Phantom II

Casteel was just about ready to return to base (RTB) when all of a sudden two Navy F-4 Phantoms from the carrier USS Constellation showed up on the scene, neither had enough fuel to return to their carrier, but the problem now was Casteel’s KC-135 was also running low. So Kasteel steered his Stratotanker toward Danang, not his home base, told the F-4s to follow, and he refueled them on the way for his own landing. After doing that, Bakse reports that he had to refuel the F-104s again. On landing, he had only 10,000 lbs. of fuel left. The boomer was MSgt. Nathan C. Campbell, no doubt one tired GI when they got on the ground.

Boyne wrote that the fighters wanted to carry as much ordnance as they could, so shortly after takeoff from home base, they would refuel to conduct their runs. They might have so many targets that they would exhaust most of their fuel trying to hit them all that they would need post-strike refueling as well. A lot of times they had received battle damage and were leaking fuel so they needed extra.

The KC-135s, especially in the early days of the Indochina War, were really workhorses as most of the KC-135 fleet was employed to support the B-52 nuclear bomber flights surrounding the Soviet Union 24-7.

Boyne tells that the KC-135s in Indochina had four primary and two secondary missions.




First they had to support the Guam-based B-52 Arc Light bombing missions over North Vietnam.


Three F-105 Thuds enroute to bomb targets in North Vietnam get some gas before they go in.

Next came the “Young Tiger” missions supporting fighters. Whereas the Arc Light missions were predictable and easy to execute, the Young Tiger fighters were all over the place and often endured fuel starvation challenges that were not at all predictable. One of these that bears particular attention is refueling post-strike aircraft, especially F-4s and F-105 Thuds, where the pilots had just endured exhausting and hair-raising raids against heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. These pilots that had to marry up with their tanker with, let’s say, their knuckles still white.

This point is worth underscoring. Ralph Wetterhahn, writing “
Dead Stick at Dong Ha,” conveyed the story of three USAF F-4s targeted at “JCS-16,” a high priority bridge not far from Haiphong Harbor designated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The F-4s were receiving a constant stream of MiG and SAM warnings from monitoring aircraft over the Gulf of Tonkin. As they approached their target area, they saw plenty of flak in front of them and had received a SAM warning. They were running at 500 knots at 4,500 ft above rolling terrain. One of the pilots commented, “Two minutes prior we had been relatively comfortable. Now our flight suits were drenched with sweat, gloves soaked, and he was holding on to a slippery stick with a ‘vise grip.’” They then attacked their target. So you can imagine what kind of state of mind they might have been in had they used a tanker on the way home.

Mission planning for all these fighter missions was often done “on the run,” good ol’ GI “seat of the pants.”


Refueling an SR-71

The next priority was refueling for the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft, which required the special JP-7 fuels carried only by KC-135Q aircraft. The final primary mission was to refuel electronic reconnaissance and airborne radio relay aircraft.

Boyne said:

“Curiously, the very success of the tankers in making a difficult task seem ordinary resulted in their receiving less credit from the Air Force and the public than should have been the case. An analysis of even a routine refueling operation shows manifest hazards. A 313,000-pound aircraft, flying at 26,000+ feet, at 300 knots, and carrying 100,000 pounds of fuel is perhaps not of itself impressive, but put that same aircraft within 40 feet of an even bigger aircraft, weighing 400,000 pounds, join them with a refueling boom, and you have a hazardous situation. Then try doing it at night, in foul weather, under radio silence, and in company with a mass formation of 50 other aircraft doing the same thing within a few square miles, and the hazardous situation becomes genuinely explosive.

“Alternatively, have the tanker off-loading fuel to a gaggle of fighters already past the critical fuel state, well inside enemy territory, and vulnerable to MiGs, flak, and SAMs.”

You must read Boyne’s article. I’d like to relay one war story he addresses.

Major Alvin L. Lewis was flying his KC-135 in May 1967 through violent thunderbusters, and literally had to find two F-105 Thuds that were critically short of fuel. Lewis found them in a clear area, and “put his tanker into a 20 degree dive so that he positioned himself in front of the first fighter, which had already flamed out.” This is incredible. The Thud was heading toward Earth and the pilot was getting ready to eject. The tanker, still in his dive, got himself in front of the F-105, hooked him up, and got him enough fuel such that the pilot could restart his engine. After transferring this small amount of fuel, the tanker increased his dive angle in front of the fighter to 30 degrees to create enough air flow through the fighter’s intakes so the skipper there could get his engines started. He then took care of the second guy, and all hands made it home safely. Let’s hope the Officer’s and Enlisted men’s clubs were open when they all got home.

There is a
short video on You Tube, shot from the cockpit of a C-17 strategic transport while refueling from a KC-135 in a thunderstorm over the Black sea. I commend this to you. You will see several times the C-17 pilots cannot even see the KC-135 during the refueling operation. And of course, they’re bouncing around quite a bit --- nerves of steel in this editor’s book.

Finally, Boyne points out that on average, there were only 88 KC-135s available during the Indochina War. These aircraft flew 179,040 sorties and off-loaded 8.2 billion pounds of fuel. Truly remarkable.

Stories abound and we could go on for days relating them. A good way to put on a wrap is with some Air Force tanker jargon:

“Still passing gas.”
“Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas ... nobody!”



Before concluding, please be aware that the KC-135 must be replaced, and there’s a whole bunch of politics involved in replacing it. Gary Parsons presents a nice history of the Old Gal. Back in 2005, Jed Babbin, a former Air Force officer who served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H. W. Bush administration, and now a writer and author, said he interviewed then CSAF General John Jumper. Jumper told him this:

“We are a global air and space power because of these tankers ... The first thing that happened in any contingency is that you put the ‘tanker bridge’ up there. We deploy tankers to places such as Spain, Hawaii, Guam and their sole purpose is to get large numbers halfway across the world without stopping.”

Babbin would said Jumper concluded this way:

“In short, no tankers, no superpower.  And the aged KC-135s are no longer capable of meeting the mission requirements imposed by Iraq, Afghanistan and our other international defense needs.”

The USAF has had a “KC-X” program requiring a fleet of new multi-role tankers that can also provide long range lift of cargo. The competition is now nine years old and we still do not have a final decision. I confess I lack the resources to follow the ups and downs of this program.


The Boeing 767 won the competition in 2002.

In December 2003, the contract was frozen and later canceled due to allegations of corruption.

In 2006, the USAF released a new request for proposal (RFP) for a new tanker program, the KC-X, to be selected by 2007. In January 2007 the USAF issued the KC-X Aerial Refueling Aircraft Request for Proposal calling for 179 aircraft.


In February 2008, the DoD selected the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-30, now designated the KC-45, as the winner. The rub was that it is essentially a European program, based on the Airbus airliner A330-200, with a nominal US company in the lead at a time when American jobs are so sorely needed.

So, Boeing protested the selection in March 2008 and the GAO upheld the protest in June. Then in September 2008 the Department of Defense (DoD) canceled the bidding. The program went into a kind of limbo, but in September 2009 Secretary of Defense Gates announced the program was underway again. To my knowledge, the original two competitors remain the only ones in the fight.

Boeing continues to offer the KC-767 and Northrop Grumman the KC-45 .

Both Japan and Italy have taken the KC-767. Australia has selected the Airbus 300 MRTT, a “Multirole Tanker Transport.”