Some American Air Refueling History
All photos by Del Laughery or the Del Laughery collection
As common place as it is, these days, for two aircraft to very nearly occupy the same piece of the sky and move jet fuel from one to the other, a lot has changed since the first U.S. aerial refueling on November 12, 1921, between two biplanes, a Lincoln Standard and a Curtis JN-4. To call this event anything more than a feat of daring would be giving it undeserved credit, as this aviation fuel transfer involved a man with a can of gas strapped to his back physically moving from one aircraft to the other, whereupon he poured the fuel into the tank of the JN-4. This approach wouldn’t stand the test of time, as you are likely aware, and by 1923 the Army was testing ways to lower a fuel hose down to the receiving aircraft, but it did mark the start of a process that is at the heart of United States air war doctrine to this day.
Aerial refueling allows the United States military to hit targets anywhere in the world. It facilitated B-52 strikes from Louisiana during the Gulf War, allows strike aircraft to takeoff on hot, humid days with much heavier weapons loads, and provides contingency options as aircraft leave their targets and return to base. Principally, there have been six large-scale dedicated refueling aircraft fielded over the years – only one of which was purpose-built for the mission – combined with various other airframes that were altered to fill the role on a smaller scale. The USAF took on the role as primary refueler for all services by producing the:
– KB-29, a modified B-29 Superfortress. Two-hundred-eighty-two of the tankers provided probe-and-drogue transfers, as well as early flying boom-based transfers, to receiving aircraft starting in 1948.
– KB-50, a conversion from the standard B-50 Superfortress, of which 136 examples were completed. General Electric J47 jets, one on each side, were added below the wings to boost the aircraft’s performance while refueling much faster jet aircraft. The type served from 1956 through 1965.
– KC-97, a variant of the C-97 Stratofreighter cargo aircraft. Supporting Strategic Air Command’s significant Cold War needs during the 1950s, 811 of these sturdy, dependable aircraft were built. Like all of the propeller-driven tankers before it, speed was an issue. Early models conducted fuel transfers while in a slight decent, which allowed the KC-97 to achieve a higher speed. Later models received J47 jets, which not only improved speed during refueling, but also improved takeoff performance. The type served active and guard units from 1950 through 1978, well into the period when the faster KC-135 was flying the line.
– KC-135, a purpose-built tanker aircraft that sprang from the Boeing 367-80, commonly referred to as the “Dash-80”, demonstrator that would also be the basis for the 707 airliner. Revolutionary in its design, and arguably the best aerial tanker ever built, including those that followed, 803 aircraft in three major variants (and multiple minor versions, many with different missions), have provided flexible fueling to strategic and tactical aircraft since its introduction in 1957. While supplemented by the KC-10, and slated for replacement by the KC-46, the type continues as the primary refueling platform today both within guard units and the active-duty Air Force.
– KC-10, converted McDonnell-Douglas DC-10-30 airliners. Unlike the KC-135, the KC-10 can refuel both boom-based and probe-and-drogue-based receivers during the same mission. Introduced to the USAF fleet in 1981, 60 aircraft were developed. Like the KC-135, KC-10s are being replaced by the KC-46, though none are slated to serve in guard units, and will, instead, head directly for the 309th AMARG at Davis-Monthan AFB for storage and eventual scrapping.
– KC-46, a variant of the venerable 767 airliner. Selected in 2011 over the Airbus KC-30, this newest refueler breaks from previous types by placing the boom operator at an aft-facing control panel immediately behind the flight deck. Views of the receiver are collected by cameras and displayed on the panel’s screen. 3D glasses are used to give the operator a sense of depth, but the system has been plagued by technical issues and current generation operators have dubbed it the “system that ruined the best job in the Air Force.” Love it, or hate it, this aircraft is the future of USAF aerial refueling.
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