The Air Refueling Combat Test
0715 Friday 6 July 1951
Over the China Sea east of Wonsan
Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea
Fuel is a weapon.”
-James F. Dunnigan, Author of the book How to Make War
I had to fly nine sorties on the day the St. Mihiel offensive started…We all wished we could refuel somehow without having to return to our bases just when the action got interesting.”
-Lieutenant John Richter, US Army Air Service Pilot and air refueling pioneer
The story of the first Air Force air refueling behind enemy lines during the Korean War – 1951
At the July 1945 Potsdam Conference, President Harry Truman met with England’s new Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to decide what the post-world War II globe looks like. Truman and Attlee’s Armies owned western Europe. Stalin’s Red Army occupied Central and Eastern Europe. Dropping the Fatman and Little Boy atomic bombs brought World War II to a close three weeks later but in reality, didn’t stop the fighting. Stalin made it very clear to Truman and Attlee he did not want free western countries along Russia’s borders. The hot conflict of World War II now turned a page into the Cold War.
Germany was divided between the Allied Forces in April 1945 after Hitler’s suicide. Stalin made Eastern Germany a Soviet satellite nation, threatening the other Allied countries with his Communist ideology. In June of 1948, Stalin began his blockade of Berlin, cutting off humanitarian aid to East German citizens. French, English, and US aircraft delivered supplies to East Berlin by air in the famous Berlin Airlift. Across the Pacific, the Civil War in China continued in earnest, Mao Zedong’s forces capturing provincial capital cities. General Chiang Kai-shek’s forces regrouped moving to the island of Taiwan but were unable to overcome Mao’s forces. In September 1948, Kim il-Sung becomes premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Kim il-Sung invaded South Korea in an effort to reunify the Korean peninsula under his rule and communist ideology.
Early in the morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel to reunify with South Korea. Far East Air Force fighter and attack aircraft were forced to leave South Korea when Kim Il-sung’s Army pushed the US and Korean forces into the Pusan Pocket in southern Korea. US jet fighters retrograded to bases across Japan, limiting their range and decreasing their loiter times over North Korea carrying heavy bomb loads. No US fighter had the range to reach the North Korean capital of Pyongyang without additional fuel.
The Far East Air Force or FEAF needed better methods to move attack aircraft farther north. FEAF called for refueling help and Strategic Air Command KB-29 tankers headed east. Two types of KB-29 refueling tankers departed the States for Japan; drogue equipped KB-29Ms and boom equipped KB-29Ps. To overcoming distance US fighters faced traveling to North Korean targets, six additional Looped-Hose equipped KB-29M tankers traveled to Flight Refueling Limited’s Tarrant Rushton facility in Great Britain for retrofitting with hose air refueling systems ending in a drogue basket looking like a badminton shuttlecock on the end of the hose. Fighters needed a quick modification to mate with the new KB-29 drogues. Flight Refueling Limited or FRL had the engineering answer.
Talking with FRL engineers, Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson modified external fuel tanks with refueling probes mounted on Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars, Republic F-84E Thunderjets, and North American F-86 Sabers. Air Material Command plumbed external fuel tanks for refueling. They did this with a two-foot-long pipe and probe welded to the front of each wing tank. Probes do not connect to aircraft internal fuel systems, only the external tanks refill.
The only drawback of external tank refueling is a cumbersome process for maintaining aircraft stability. Mounting external fuel tanks on wingtips caused lateral instability. This was due to the out-of-balance condition by wingtip tanks holding 1600 to 1800 pounds. Rejoining on a drogue equipped KB-29M, pilots plugged into the drogue filling one wingtip tank half full. Disconnecting, the pilot then plugged the opposite wingtip tank into the drogue refilling it fully. Once full, the pilot plugged the half-empty tank into the drogue again, filling it to capacity.
Early morning of 6 July 1951, three RF-80A Shooting Star reconnaissance fighters departed Taegu Air Base South Korea for North Korean to photograph bombed targets. Even with wingtip fuel tanks, their combat radius was a short 330 nautical miles. The three RF-80s were tasked to photograph targets more than 210 miles away, granting only 100 miles of coverage.
One Air Materiel Command KB-29M recently retrofitted with a Flight Refueling Limited drogue system left Yokota Air Base Japan tasked to meet with any aircraft requiring air refueling. Rendezvousing east of Wonsan North Korea, the RF-80s plugged into the KB-29’s streaming drogue topping off each external tank. The RF-80s reset their 330 nautical mile combat radius just miles off North Korea’s east coast, like starting the mission completely over in a new jet. Disconnecting from the drogue and turning West at 18,000 feet, the three RF-80s spread across North Korea, photographing targets attacked by fighter and bombers, and discovering new targets in the process.
This refueling event behind the KB-29M in July 1951 was a historical first for the Air Force; the first air refueling operations in combat conditions near enemy territory. Days later, a KB-29P of the 91st Air Refueling Squadron deployed from Barksdale AFB and accomplished the first boom combat refueling. The 91st KB-29P rendezvoused with a North American RB-45C Tornado on a photo-reconnaissance mission over North Korea. After refilling its tanks, the RB-45 disconnected and returned to North Korea photographing targets destroyed by NATO fighters and bombers.
In September of 1952, Korea’s real test of fighter pilot’s ability to remain airborne for long periods of time happened. As a result, there was a new record for single engine, single seat jet aircraft endurance. Lieutenant Colonel Harry Doris accomplished five separate combat missions in 14 hours and 15 minutes after refueling eight times from a Yokota-based KB-29M. His F-80 Shooting Star took off with two wingtip-mounted 265-gallon fuel tanks modified with Air Materiel Command’s refueling probes, each capable of holding 1800 pounds of fuel.
Colonel Doris departed Yokota at 0510, carrying two 500-pound bombs, four 6-inch rockets, and full magazines of 50 caliber ammunition. Refueling from another Flight Refueling Limited retrofitted KB-29M tanker at 15,000 feet east of North Korea, Lt Col Dorris attacked his first target near Kilju North Korea. Dropping both bombs through a four-story enemy supply depot, he returned to the orbiting Superfortress tanker.
Once he exited the refueling area a second time, Colonel Dorris attacked a supply dump on the Onjin peninsula, firing all four 6-inch rockets into a building loaded with war supplies. He next strafed Communist Army troops near Yangdok in central North Korea. Expending all his ordinance, Colonel Doris started searching central North Korea for more targets. Inclement weather plagued his entire flight. Each refueling required meeting the KB-29 tankers in clouds and rain. The last of eight refuelings accomplished at night gave him enough fuel for his return to Yokota. Colonel Doris 14-hour 15-minute fighter mission is considered long even by today’s standards. But he proved refueling extends the range, payload, and endurance of armed fighter aircraft with limited combat radius. Fuel is now a weapon, and attack aircraft can remain airborne as long as pilots can stay awake in flight. We have drugs for that now.
After observing Flight Refueling Limited’s drogue demonstration in April 1950, the Air Force sent four more B-29s to Tarrant Rushton. FRL modified two B-29 airframes into tankers; one with a single centerline drogue system designated KB-29M, and another with a centerline drogue and two wing mounted pods creating the first “triple nipple” tanker designated YKT-29T. Two Republic F-84E Thunderjets accompanied the B-29s to FRL’s Tarrant Rushton facility. FRL engineers installed probes midway down the left wing leading edge on two single-seat fighter jets. The entire Thunderjet fuel system refills through the probe, capable of receiving 5928 pounds of fuel into their tanks. All aircraft returned to the US, establishing another Air Force refueling first.
In the first demonstration of aircraft deployment refueling support Colonel Dave Schilling, famous Commander of the 56th “Slybird” Fighter Group during World War II, and Colonel William Ritchie took off from Manston Airfield near the Straits of Dover on 22 September 1950 heading for the States. Once refueled from a Flight Refueling Limited Lancaster tanker near Prestwick Scotland, Schilling and Ritchie crossed the Scottish coastline into the Atlantic Ocean.
Flight Refueling Limited’s Lincoln tanker met Schilling and Ritchie over Reykjavík Iceland. During a second contact attempt, Colonel Ritchie damaged his refueling valve at the probe’s end. Unable to refuel from the KB-29M tanker over Labrador, Colonel Ritchie ejected safely, picked up by a helicopter two hours later. Meanwhile, Colonel Schilling continued west, landing at a secret airfield outside Limestone Maine, the former Strategic Air Command Loring Air Force Base. He logged 10 hours 8 minutes in the first jet crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Colonel Schilling once again made Air Force and refueling history in July 1952. The US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) owned several fighter escort squadrons flying F-84 Thunderjets capable of releasing Mk 7 nuclear bombs. However, SAC leaders gave Colonel Schilling just eight days to prepare for his 6721-mile movement to Misawa Air Base in Japan. Under the codename Operation Fox Peter One, meaning “Fighters over the Pacific One,” Schilling’s Fighter Escort Wing deployment also tested the KB-29P boom refueling system supporting the journey across the US and Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. Schilling’s 31st FEW operated the newest model of F-84G Thunderjets, equipped with refueling receptacles near the left wing root.
Fifty-seven Thunderjets departed Turner Air Force Base Georgia on 4 July 1952 at 0900, meeting twenty KB-29P tankers over the radio navigation aid at Wink Texas. Once the 6-hour 45-minute non-stop flight concluded, all fighters received fuel, landing safely at Travis Air Force Base California. The 307th and 308th Fighter Squadrons departed Travis Air Force Base on 6 July for Hickam AFB Hawaii. Traveling across the Pacific Ocean, both squadrons rendezvoused with ten KB-29Ps over Weather Station Alpha. Planners placed a Coast Guard Cutter under the refueling area in case an aircraft could not take gas and the pilot ejected.
When one aircraft damaged its refueling equipment, the 307th returned to Travis. All 308th aircraft filled up and proceeded to the next refueling point, Weather Station Uncle, 300 miles east of Hickam Air Force Base. Another Coast Guard Cutter sailed underneath the refueling area as a safety precaution. The 5-hour 27-minute flight finally ended when Major Robert Keen successfully landed his squadron at Hickam. One day later, Colonel Schilling accomplished a successful crossing with the 309th, landing July 8.
After Hickam, all three squadrons island-hopped to the Japanese mainland. Wake Island, Midway Island, Eniwetok Atoll, Guam, Iwo Jima and finally Yokota were their intermediate stops to Misawa Air Base. Colonel Schilling’s F-84G Thunderjets establish four Air Force firsts: First, the first mass movement of fighter jets across the Pacific; next, the first mass midair refueling movement of fighters; third, the longest mass movement of an entire fighter wing; and lastly, the longest mass non-stop over water flight of fighters.
Six months later Colonel Don Blakeslee, the inspirational commander of the 4th Fighter Group in World War II, deployed with his 27th Fighter Escort Wing to Japan relieving Colonel Schilling’s 31st FEW. The 27th FEW followed the same route of flight and refueling plan Colonel Shilling used. Fighter jet deployment support by Air Force tankers had to impress the Soviets; US Air Forces can now deploy across oceans refueling behind KB-29 or KC-97 tankers to any location across the world.
About the author: A member of the Valorous TV Advisory board, Mark Hasara is a military veteran and author. For twenty-four years he operated one of the Air Force’s oldest airplanes, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His career started during the Reagan Administration, carrying out Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent mission. Moving to Okinawa Japan in August 1990, he flew missions throughout the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. His first combat missions were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a Duty Officer in the Tanker Airlift Control Center, he planned and ran five hundred airlift and air refueling missions a month. Upon retirement from the Air Force, Mark spent seven years at Rockwell Collins in engineering, designing and developing military fixed and rotary wing aircraft cockpits. Mark became a full-time author and defense industry consultant in 2014. Mark Hasara’s book, “Tanker Pilot” is available on Amazon other in other fine bookstores.