Year of the Tanker
One of the main themes of AirVenture 2018 was a salute to the often over looked Aerial Refueler better known as the Tanker. EAA assembled an impressive array of front line United States Air Force, United States Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and United States Navy aircraft that were both on static display and part of the daily airshow. NASA also contributed the last flyable S-3B Viking in the world to part of this salute, which was once a vital player in the aerial refueling world.
Aerial Refueling has come a very long way since its birth in 1923, depending on the branch of the military and the type of aircraft or helicopter there are two types of modern aerial refueling. The United States Air Force primarily uses the flying boom method, while the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps will use the probe and drogue method. Helicopters regardless of the branch will use the probe and drogue method, United States Navy Boeing E-6B’s and P-8A’s use the flying boom method. Regardless of the type of method aerial refueling employed it is a very precise and coordinated effort between aircraft.
The flying boom method employs a rigid telescoping tube with move-able flight control surfaces that plugs into the receptacle of the receiving aircraft. The flying boom method is so named because of the flight control surfaces attached to the boom (which are often in a V tail configuration) are used to “fly” or move the boom. The original flying boom was designed by Boeing in the late 1940’s, and has been used by modified B-29 Superfortresses designated as the KB-29’s and the first true production aerial refueler the KC-97 Stratofreighter which is based on the C-97 Freighter. Today the flying boom is employed on the KC-135 Stratotanker which was designed from the Boeing 367-80 air frame and the McDonnell Douglas Boeing KC-10A Extender which is based on the civilian DC10-30CF air frame. The KC-10A however uses the McDonnell Douglas version of the flying boom. The next generation of Tanker the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus will also use the KC-10A style of boom. This method is also employed by the Air Forces of many other countries including the Netherlands and Australia.
The other type of modern aerial refueling is the probe -and drogue method. This method was designed by Flight Refueling Limited a company that Sir Allan Cobham founded in the United Kingdom in 1934. Sir Alan Cobham is responsible for revolutionizing aerial refueling. The probe- and-drogue method employs a flexible hose that trails from the HDU (hose drum unit) attached to the refueler with the drogue attached to the hose. The drogue resembles a shuttlecock, and helps to stabilize the hose in front and provides the funnel to attach to the probe of the receiving aircraft. This method has been used since 1949 with many different types of aircraft flown as refuelers using this method. The flying boom can also be converted into a probe and drogue system with a special adapter fitted to the nozzle of the boom.
This years Salute to the Tanker featured the Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers from the 128th ARW (Air Refueling Wing) Wisconsin Air National Guard based at Milwaukee Wisconsin and the United States Air Force Reserve’s 434th ARW based out of Grissom Air Force Base Indiana. The KC-135 first flew in 1956 with the first aircraft entering service in 1957. A total of 820 of C-135 family were built in various configurations with the last KC-135 delivered on 1965. The KC-135 has seen many upgrades, enhanced avionics, and engine retrofits since the original KC-135A was placed into service with Pratt and Whitney J-57 engines, the KC-135E was retrofitted with Pratt and Whitney TF-33 engines. The current and most modern version in service today is the KC-135R, RT, and T models fitted with the CFM-56 engine. The KC-135 can offload up to 6,500#’s of fuel a minute depending on the aircraft type and can carry up to 200,000#’s of fuel and 83,000#’s of cargo. The KC-135R’s are all converted A and E models, while the KC-135T’s are converted Q models which were used to refuel the retired SR-71 Blackbird. The KC-135RT is very unique as it has the capability to be refueled in flight, these aircraft are normally used for Special Operations missions. Some KC-135’s are being further upgraded with the MPRS (Multi Point Refueling System) which sees Flight Refueling Limited refueling pods placed one under each wing to allow refueling using both the probe-and-drogue and boom method at the same time. Approximately 400 KC-135’s are in service today with the United States Air Force, United States Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. KC-135’s can also be found in service with many other countries including France and Turkey.
The McDonnell Douglas Boeing KC-10A Extender also participated this year with aircraft from the United States Force’s 60th AMW (Air Mobility Wing) based at Travis Air Force Base California and the 305th AMW based out of McGuire Air Force Base New Jersey. The KC-10A first flew in July 190 and entered service in March 1981. The KC-10 is powered by three General Electric CF6 engines, can carry 356,000#’s of fuel and 170,000#’s of cargo. The KC-10A also uses the flying boom method of refueling but it’s boom was designed by McDonnell Douglas and is called the AARB (Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom) which is similar to the Boeing model but with a different flight control system which is fly-by-wire. The KC-10A also has the ability to use the probe-and-drogue method of refueling and has a hose drum unit attached to the starboard side of the aircraft. To further enhance the KC-10A’s abilities it is also being retrofitted with the MPRS pods to be able to refuel three aircraft simultaneously. 59 aircraft are in service with the United States Air Force today.
The Lockheed HC-130 P/N “Combat King” Hercules was represented by the United States Air Force Reserve’s 39th Rescue Squadron based out of Patrick Air Force Base Florida. The HC-130 P/N is a SAR (Search and Rescue) or CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) version of the C-130 Hercules which first flew in 1959. The HC-130 P/N is based off the E model of the C-130 and is primarily used as an aerial refueler for helicopters of the US Military, NATO, and our allies. The HC-130 P/N uses the probe-and-drogue method with a refueling pod located under each wing. The HC-130 P/N will eventually be replaced by the HC-130J Combat King II Hercules. The HC-130 is operated by the United States Air Force, United States Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard and the United States Coast Guard.
The United States Navy uses the probe-and-drogue method of refueling. The United States Navy uses a refueling pod better known as a “buddy pack”. A buddy pack is a hose-and-drogue unit attached to an underwing hard-point. The United States Navy has used many different aircraft as a refueler, these aircraft have included the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, and the Grumman A-6 Intruder. Today this role Is primarily filled by the FA-18 Hornet with a buddy pack attached to the centerline hard-point. An FA-18F Super Hornet was on display from VX-23 based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. MD.
The final aircraft to participate is one that spent many years as a United States Navy refueler using a buddy pack. NASA brought N601NA, the last flyable Lockheed S-3B Viking or Hoover as it was nicknamed. This S-3B in its United States Navy days flew with VS-22 and VS-28. The S-3 was designed to be an ASW (Anti Submarine Warfare) aircraft but later adopted roles as an attack, intelligence gathering and as a tanker. Former President George W. Bush flew in a VS-35 from Naval Air Station North Island and trapped on the aircraft carrier USS. Abraham Lincoln. It is custom for any aircraft that the President is aboard to use the Branch call sign plus “One”, thus it became “Navy One”; this S-3 was no different than other naval versions. NASA uses this S-3 has an environmental research and satellite communication testing platform. NASA had this aircraft on static display and also a performer in the Saturday airshow.
Aerial refueling has come a very long way since early experimentation in the 1920’s. Aerial refueling has been an extremely important part of every conflict since the Korean War. The tanker is flown by many or armed forces around the world and will continue to be “force multiplier.” Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”