Aerial Refueling

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Anyone who is addicted to the Military Channel (formerly Wings Channel) has seen documentaries and examples of aerial refueling. I love the grainy, black & white movies of biplanes with hoses experimenting with the process. We've come a long way and modern aerial combat is simply not possible without the process. A great deal of the history of modern commercial aviation revolves around Boeing's Dash-8 demonstrator which showcased to the military a jet transport type aircraft which could be fitted for refueling then modern jet bombers and fighters.

First a little history. I don't know if there was another regular tanker before the KB-50, but I believe the flying boom was first used with it. I guess we'd better do a little sidestep of aviation history here, too. The B-50 (B for bomber) was a development of the B-29, the last great bomber of WWII. In fact, the B-29 lent itself to several evolutions including the B-50, the C-97 (C for transport), and the civilian Boeing 337 airliner. They were all based on the same airframe with modifications in fuselage size and engines—whatever iteration, the bones of the B-29 are easily discerned.

The letter “K” denotes tanker, and there are all sorts of aircrat which can function as a tanker. In the Navy, in particular, they often employ their attack aircraft (A6s, FA18s) as tankers as well as their S3 anti-sub aircraft. In each case they'll be identified with the “K” prepended to the type designator—KA-6, KS-3, etc. The Air Force has basically employed four aircraft for their refueling mission—the KB-50, KC-97, KC-135, and the KC-10. All of these tankers (except the KB-50) have as their root a transport airframe—C-97, C-135, C-10—although I'm not sure there's an actual C-10 transport. There were however, lots of C-97s and C-135s. Most of the documentaries revolving around the KC-135 misapply the designator to the transport version of the aircraft. But I digress…

Although ad hoc refueling can occur most anywhere, within the continental U.S., most of the refueling is done in established tracks. And while their use can on occasion be in support of a specific operational mission, most often they're used for training purposes—both for refueling units and the tactical units they support. We had at least a couple at ZAU and Roddy reminded me of a couple in ZJX (I couldn't remember them).

The primary track I was familiar with was located near RBS and refueling was often conducted at FL330 (33,000'), but it could be employed at much lower altitudes, as well. In fact, I took a familiarization trip on a KC-135 out of ORD when the Illinois Air National Guard had a refueling wing there, and we refueled a C-5 on that same route but at FL220 (22,000'). I was able to take my video camera and lay in the back, right next to the boom operator (the boomer is supine in the KC-135, but sits up in the KC-10). I have some great video. Some day I'll have to learn how to convert it to an MPEG or AVI so I can upload it to this site.

The ride fulfilled every justification for familiarization flights. Not only did I see our ATC system from the cockpit (as was done on airline FAMs, as well), but I got to see the nuts and bolts of aerial refueling, from rendezvous, to join-up, to tanking, to breakaway. We also went out to OFF to shoot some touch-and-goes—an experience one doesn't often have on a 707. Usually, when landing, there are aircraft close ahead and close behind, so it's a matter of plunk it on the runway, get on the reversers and brakes, and make the first high speed taxiway. At OFF we were the only airplane in the sky, and with 13,000' of runway, the pilot was able to take the time (and runway) to grease it on as smoothly as I've ever felt in any airplane.

When we returned to ORD, we were vectored in line to 9R where we plunked it on the runway, got on the reversers and brakes, and made the first high speed taxiway. The whole day was an awesome experience.

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Last updated: 04 February 2010