Tag Archives: Air Refueling

30 December 1964

A Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker refuels a Boeing B-52E Stratofortress. (U.S. Air Force)

30 December 1964: The United States Air Force accepted the last of 732 Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers: KC-135A serial number 64-14840. The new tanker was assigned to the 380th Air Refueling Squadron at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York, 12 January 1965.

As of 14 May 2018, 396 KC-135s were still in service with the United States Air Force: 153 active duty, 72 Air Force Reserve, and 171 Air National Guard. It is estimated that the fleet is 33% through their design lifetime limits.

Built as an aerial refueling tanker to support the U.S. Air Force fleet of B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers, an initial order for 24 tankers was soon increased to 250. Eventually 732 KC-135As were built by Boeing, and an additional 81 of other versions.

With the company internal designation of Model 717, the KC-135 was developed from the Model 367-80 proof-of-concept prototype, the “Dash Eighty.” The Stratotanker is very similar in appearance to the Model 707 and 720 airliners but is structurally a different aircraft. It is also shorter than the 707 and has a smaller diameter fuselage.

Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers of the 40th Air Expeditionary Group, forward deployed to support B-52 operations. (SMSGT John Rohrer, U.S. Air Force)
Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers of the 40th Air Expeditionary Group, forward deployed to support B-52 operations. (SMSGT John Rohrer, U.S. Air Force)

The Stratotanker was originally operated by a flight crew of four: pilot, co-pilot, navigator and refueling boom operator. Upgrades over the decades have simplified operation and the crew has been reduced to two pilots and the boom operator.

The KC-135R is 136 feet, 3 inches (41.529 meters) long (156 feet/47.549 meters with fueling boom extended), with a wingspan of 130 feet, 10 inches (39.878 meters), and overall height of 41 feet, 8 inches (12.700 meters). Its maximum takeoff weight is 322,500 pounds (146,284 kilograms).

The Stratotanker can carry up to 200,000 pounds (90,718 kilograms) of fuel for inflight refueling. It can also be configured to carry 83,000 pounds (37,648 kilograms) of cargo, or 80 passengers.

Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker 64-14840 at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Columbus, Ohio, 2018. (Ohio Air National Guard)

The KC-135A was originally powered by four Pratt & Whitney J57-P-59W turbojet engines producing 13,750 pounds of thrust (61.163 kilonewtons) for takeoff, using water injection. The fleet has been re-engined with more efficient CFM International CFM56-2B1 (F108-CF-100) engines. Modified airplanes are designated KC-135R. The CFM56-2 is a two-spool, axial-flow, high-bypass turbofan with a single fan stage, 12-stage compressor section (3 low pressure and 9 high pressure stages), annular combustor, and a 5-stage turbine (1 high pressure and 4 low pressure stages). The engine is rated at 21,634 pounds of thrust (96.233 kilonewtons).

The tanker has a maximum speed of 350 knots (402 miles per hour/648 kilometers per hour) below 26,500 feet (8,077 meters), and 0.90 Mach when above that altitude. It has a range of 1,500 miles (2,424 kilometers) when carrying 150,000 pounds (68,039 kilograms) of transfer fuel. The service ceiling is 50,000 feet (15,200 meters).

The newest Stratotanker in service with the United States Air Force, KC-135R 64-14840 is 59 years old. It is presently assigned to the 121st Air Refueling Wing, Ohio Air National Guard.

The final Boeing Stratotanker, KC-135R 64-14840, remains in service with the 121st Air Refueling Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, based at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, Columbus Ohio. (Ohio Air National Guard)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

25 October 1923

First Lieutenant Lowell H. Smith and First Lieutenant John Paul Richter, Air Service, United States Army. (U.S. Air Force)

25 October 1923: First Lieutenant Lowell Herbert Smith and First Lieutenant John P. Richter, Air Service, United States Army, flew a DH-4B from Sumas, Washington, to Tijuana, Mexico, non-stop.

The 1,280 mile (2,060 kilometer) flight was made possible by two air-to-air refuelings from tanker airplanes pre-positioned over Eugene, Oregon, and Sacramento, California. The DH-4B tanker over Eugene was flown by First Lieutenants Virgil Hine and Frank W. Siefert. The Sacramento tanker was flown by Captain Robert J. Erwin and First Lieutenant Oliver R. McNeel. At both locations, Smith and Richter made two refueling contacts before proceeding on their route.

On arrival over Mexico, they circled the Tijuana Customs House, then landed at Rockwell Field, San Diego.

The flight took approximately 12 hours.

On 27 June 1923, Captain Smith and Lieutenant Richter stayed aloft over Rockwell Field, (now, NAS North Island) at San Diego, California, with multiple refuelings. This photograph shows the DH-4B tanker, A.S. 23-467, and receiver on that endurance flight. (U.S. Air Force)

Lowell Herbert Smith was born 8 October 1892 in Santa Barbara County, California. He was the second of four children of Jasper Green Smith and Nora Maude Holland Smith. Beginning in 1915, he flew for the Mexican Army. (Another source says that he flew for the revolutionary bandit, Pancho Villa.) Smith graduated from San Fernando College in 1917. He enlisted in the Aviation Section, Signal Corps, United States Army, 8 June 1917, and attended the Military School of Aeronautics at the University of California. Smith was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Signal Officers Reserve Corps, 13 December 1917. He was promoted to the rank of captain, Aviation Section, 23 October 1918. On 10 September 1920, that commission was vacated and he was commissioned a captain, Air Service. On 18 November 1922, Smith was discharged as captain and appointed first lieutenant.

On 27 June 1923, Smith and Richter accomplished the first air refueling over Rockwell Field, San Diego, using air techniques that they also used for the border-to-border flight of 25 October 1926. On 28–29 June, Smith and Richter remained airborne over San Diego for 37 hours, 15 minutes, 14½ seconds. For that flight, they were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

From 6 April to 28 September 1924, Lowell Smith was the pilot of Airplane No. 2, the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago, on the first circumnavigation by airplane. After Major Frederick Martin crashed his DWC in Alaska, Smith assumed command of the remaining three aircraft for the rest of the 23,942 nautical mile (44,341 kilometers) flight. For this flight, Smith was awarded the Distinguished Service medal. He was again promoted to captain 4 December 1924.

Smith graduated from the Army Command and General Staff School in 1935. In 1936 he served on a War Department board that established airplane design standards and procedures for the military to order new aircraft.  He was promoted to major on 16 June 1936, and to lieutenant colonel on 1 March 1940. Several months later, with the rapid expansion of the Army Air Corps, on 30 August 1940, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and then to colonel, 15 March 1941. During World War II, Colonel Smith commanded Davis-Monthan Army Airfield.

Colonel Lowell Herbert Smith, United States Army Air Corps, died as the result of falling from a horse near Tucson, Arizona, 4 November 1945. He was 53 years old. Colonel Smith is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.

John Paul Richter was born in Virginia, 6 January 1991, the first of five children of Otto Frank Richter, a physician, and Nora Kinney Richter. In 1911 he graduated from the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering.  He enlisted in the Aviation Section, Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps 22 May 1917, and was commissioned a first lieutenant 20 November 1917. His commission in the Aviation Section was vacated 12 October 1920 and he was appointed a first lieutenant in the Air Service, effective retroactively to 1 July 1920.

John Richter married Miss Frances K. Fisher in 1925.

Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Richter, United States Army Air Corps, was discharged 31 December 1943. He died 26 April 1964 at the age of 73 years. He is buried at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Refueling in flight. (U.S. Air Force)
DH-4B A.S. 23-467 (top right) trails a refueling hose for Smith and Richter’s DH-4B near Rockwell Field, San Diego, California, 23 June 1923. (U.S. Air Force)

The Airco DH.4 was a very successful airplane of World War I, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland. The DH.4 (DH-4 in American service) was a two-place, single-engine, two-bay biplane with fixed landing gear. The fuselage and wings were constructed of wood and covered with doped-fabric. The airplane was produced by several manufacturers in Europe and the United States. The DH-4 was 30 feet, 5 inches (9.271 meters) long with a wingspan of 42 feet, 8 inches (13.005 meters) and height of 10 feet, 6 inches (3.200 meters). The DH-4 had an empty weight of 2,391 pounds, (1,085 kilograms) and gross weight of 4,297 pounds (1,949 kilograms). Fuel capacity was 67 gallons (254 liters).

Army Air Service DH-4s were powered by Liberty 12 aircraft engines in place of the Rolls-Royce Eagle VII V-12 of the British-built DH.4 version. The L-12 was water-cooled, normally-aspirated, 1,649.34-cubic-inch-displacement (27.028 liter), single overhead cam (SOHC) 45° V-12 engine. It produced 408 horsepower at 1,800 r.p.m. The L-12 as a right-hand tractor, direct-drive engine and it turned turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch wooden propeller. The Liberty 12 was 67.375 inches (1.711 meters) long, 27.0 inches (0.686 meters) wide, and 41.5 inches (1.054 meters) high. It weighed 844 pounds (383 kilograms).

The Liberty 12 aircraft engine was designed by Jesse G. Vincent of the Packard Motor Car Company and Elbert J. Hall of the Hall-Scott Motor Company. This engine was produced by Ford Motor Company, as well as the Buick and Cadillac Divisions of General Motors, The Lincoln Motor Company (which was formed by Henry Leland, the former manager of Cadillac, specifically to manufacture these aircraft engines), Marmon Motor Car Company and the Packard Motor Car Company. Hall-Scott was too small to produce engines in the numbers required.

The DH-4 had a maximum speed of 124 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour), service ceiling of 19,600 feet (5,974 meters) and range of 400 miles (644 kilometers).

Many DH-4s were rebuilt as DH-4Bs. These can be identified by the relocated pilot’s cockpit, which was moved aft, closer to the observer’s position. The an enlarged fuel tank was place ahead of the pilot’s cockpit. Following World War II, many were rebuilt with tubular metal frames for the fuselage, replacing the original wooden structure. These aircraft were redesignated DH-4M.

The prototype American DH-4, Dayton-Wright-built airplane, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution National Aviation and Space Museum.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

11–12 July 1999

Amundsen Scott South Pole Station

11–12 July 1999: Jerri Lin Nielsen, M.D., a physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, self-biopsied a suspicious breast lump. Results were inconclusive, so the National Science Foundation decided to send additional test equipment and medications to the remote station by military transport.

Brigadier General John I. Pray, Jr., United States Air Force.
Brigadier General John I. Pray, Jr., United States Air Force.

Because of the extreme cold, adverse weather conditions and months of darkness, it was considered too dangerous for an aircraft to attempt landing at the South Pole. A United States Air Force Lockheed C-141B Starlifter of the 62nd Airlift Wing, McChord Air Force Base, Washington, was sent to stage out of Christchurch, New Zealand, in order to air drop the supplies at the South Pole. The mission was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John I. Pray, Jr., U.S. Air Force.

Departing Christchurch at 2154 UTC, 11 July, with six pallets of medical supplies and equipment as well as fresh food and mail for the remote outpost, the C-141 was joined for the flight by a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker from the 203rd Air Refueling Squadron, Hawaii National Guard, for inflight refueling. A refueling took place over McMurdo Station and then the Starlifter headed on toward the Pole.

A Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker prepares to refuel a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter. (Richard Seaman)

Amundsen-Scott station personnel set fire to 27 smudge pots arranged in a semi-circle to mark the drop zone, and turned off all outside lighting. When the transport arrived overhead, blowing snow obscured the drop zone and it took the aircrew, flying with night vision goggles, 25 minutes to locate the markers.

The first of six pallets of medical supplies airdropped by the U.S. Air force at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, 11 July 1999. (National Science Foundation)
The first of six pallets of medical supplies airdropped by the U.S. Air Force at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, 11 July 1999. (National Science Foundation)

At 2230 the C-141 flew over at an altitude of 700 feet (213.4 meters) and dropped two cargo pallets on the first pass and the remaining four on a second. It immediately departed to rendezvous with the KC-135 tanker and both returned to New Zealand.

After a 6,375 mile (10,260 kilometer) round trip, the C-141 touched down at Christchurch at 1225 UTC, 12 July.

Dr. Nielsen’s lump was cancerous. Using the medical supplies that had been air-dropped, she treated herself for the next three months. She was evacuated by air when a Lockheed LC-130H Hercules from the 109th Airlift Wing, New York Air National Guard, picked her up 16 October 1999.

Dr. Nielsen’s cancer eventually metastasized to her liver, bones and brain. Jerri Lin FitzGerald, M.D., died 23 June 2009 at her home in Southwick, Massachusetts.

Her husband, Thomas FitzGerald, said, “She fought bravely, she was able to make the best of what life and circumstance gave her, and she had the most resilience I have ever seen in anyone. She fought hard and she fought valiantly.”

Dr. Jerri Lin Nielsen, 1 March 1952–23 June 2009. (National Science Foundation)
Dr. Jerri Lin Nielsen, 1 March 1952–23 June 2009. (National Science Foundation)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes