We Keep refueling the Planes, 100 years of Air Refueling

  • Published
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Funnels, a hand-operated valve and reaching out to grab rubber hose while flying in an open cockpit at 120 miles per hour was the recipe that led to a cornerstone of Global Mobility, a century ago.

Those were the tools and method for the first air refueling, passing a grand total of 75 gallons of fuel between two aircraft, all to see if the receiver aircraft could fly just a little bit further.

Today, the concept of transferring fuel between aircraft in midflight is defined as air-refueling – better known as “A/R.” The practice of air refueling is now much more refined, practiced and perfected into everyday practice that enables Global Mobility and Global Reach for the Joint Force.

The first chapters of the history of air refueling are best defined by the words of Air Force Historian Richard K. Smith in a 1998 publication by the Air Force History and Museums Program, covering the then- 75 Years of Inflight Refueling, 1923-1998. While that history is now 100 years and counting, the story of air refueling remains the same.

The First Air Refueling

On June 27, 1923, at an altitude of about 500 feet above Rockwell Field on San Diego's North Island, two U.S. Army Air Service airplanes became linked by hose, and one airplane refueled the other.

While only 75 gallons of fuel was transferred, the event is memorable because it was the first.

The airplanes were de Havilland DH-4Bs, single-engine biplanes. First Lt. Virgil Hine piloted the tanker; 1st Lt. Frank W. Seifert occupied the rear cockpit and handled the fueling hose. Capt. Lowell H. Smith flew the receiver while 1st Lt. John Paul Richter handled the refueling from the rear cockpit. The refueling system consisted of a 50-foot length of rubber hose, trailed from the tanker, with a manually operated quick-closing valve at each end.

After 6 hours and 38 minutes, and only one refueling, engine trouble in the receiver terminated the flight. Recognizing that a second refueling plane would provide more safety and flexibility, the next attempt included a third DH-4 as the second refueler. On August 27 and 28, with 14 midair contacts, tankers kept Smith and Richter in the air over a prescribed track for 37 hours and 25 minutes and set a world record for endurance. The track flown was 3,293 miles, about the same distance as that from Goose Bay, Labrador, to what was Leningrad in the Soviet Union.

On Oct. 25, 1923, to demonstrate a practical application for inflight refueling, Smith and Richter took off from Suma, Washington, near the border between the United States and Canada and headed south. Near Eugene, Oregon, they were refueled, and a few hours later refueled again over Sacramento, California.  About 12 hours after leaving Suma, Smith and Richter circled the customs house at Tijuana, Mexico, and then landed at Rockwell Field in San Diego. This border-to-border nonstop flight of 1,280 miles demonstrated how an airplane with a normal range of 275 miles could have its range quadrupled.

It's possible to confuse "firsts" with "beginnings," and these earliest efforts at inflight refueling proved to be firsts in quest of a beginning. In 1923, Army aviation had not yet recovered from the chaotic demobilization of 1919 and from its straitened budgets. As a result, the Rockwell experiments were dismissed as stunts, especially after Nov. 18, 1923, when an airplane was wrecked and a pilot killed while trying to demonstrate aerial refueling during an airshow at Kelly Field, Texas. This was aerial refueling’s first fatal accident and, in the absence of a practical application for such refueling, for more than a quarter-century thereafter it was also its only fatality. Shortly after the Rockwell Field demonstrations, the British and French air forces conducted some brief inflight experiments, but they, too, could find no practical use for the technique. Aerial refueling was a solution in search of a problem.

The Question Mark and Its Answer

In June 1928, the Belgian Air Force modified a pair of de Havilland biplanes into a tanker and a receiver and engaged in a refueling operation that stayed aloft for 60 hours. Given the size of Belgium (11,781 square miles-little larger than the state of Maryland), the purpose of this operation is unclear. But some 3,600 miles westward, at Washington, D.C.'s Bolling Field, it inspired 1st Lt. Elwood "Pete" Quesada to plan a similar venture. His plan had nothing to do with the Army Air Corps; rather, he developed it with a U.S. Marine Corps aviator at the nearby Anacostia Naval Air Station. Once told of Quesada's plan, Capt. Ira Eaker, then working in the office of the Assistant Secretary of War for Air, appropriated it for the Air Corps alone, and obtained the support of Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet, Chief of the Air Corps. Assistant Secretary of War for Air, F. Trubee Davison, however, wanted more than a publicity stunt and would agree to the operation only if it led to a military application.

What became the much-publicized Question Mark Operation went forward with a Fokker C-2A trimotor, a high-wing monoplane, modified into the receiver. Its two 96-gallon wing tanks were supplemented by two 150-gallon tanks installed in its cabin. After fuel was received into the cabin tanks it had to be pumped by hand to the wing tanks, from where it gravitated to the engines. A hatch was cut in the plane's roof to receive the refueling hose and other materials. On each side of its fuselage, the Fokker was painted with a large question mark intended to provoke wonder at how long the airplane could remain airborne. Its crew consisted of Maj. Carl Spaatz, Capt. Eaker, 1st Lts. Harry A. Halverson and Elwood Quesada, and Staff Sgt. Roy W. Hooe.

Two Douglas C-1 single-engine biplane transports were transformed into tankers by installing two 150-gallon tanks for offloading and a refueling hose that passed through a hatch cut in the floor. Tanker No. 1 was flown by Capt. Ross G. Hoyt, 1st Lt. Auby C. Strickland, and 2nd Lt. Irwin A. Woodring. Tanker No. 2 was flown by 1st Lt. Odas Moon and 2nd Lts. Joseph G. Hopkins and Andrew F. Salter. By the end of 1928, this small force was concentrated at the Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys.

The almost anonymous "master of ceremonies" of the Question Mark endeavor was Capt. Hugh M. Elmendorf, who oversaw ground operations and logistics. Radio communications were not used between the Question Mark and the ground because aircraft radios in 1929 were big, heavy, delicate, and unreliable. Instead, communications were accomplished with flags, flares, and flashlights; spreading cloth panels on the ground; dropping weighted message bags; and sending fighters aloft with messages whitewashed on their fuselages.

The operation got under way on New Year's Day in 1929. The Fokker receiver flew a "racetrack" pattern over the 110 miles between Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys and Rockwell Field at San Diego.

In the course of the operation, the tankers made 43 takeoffs and landings. Hoyt flew 27 sorties, 10 of them at night; Moon flew 16 sorties, two at night. Altogether, they delivered 5,660 gallons of fuel (33,960 pounds), 245 gallons of engine oil (1,838 pounds delivered in 49 five-gallon cans), and storage batteries, spare parts, tools, food, clothing, mail, and congratulatory telegrams. Although the success of the operation clearly depended on the tankers, no one sent any telegrams to Hoyt, Moon, or their crews. With two of the Question Mark's three engines almost reduced to junk, the operation ended on Jan. 7, 1929, after 150 hours and 40 minutes. The ultimate unreliability of the engines resulted from having no adequate means for lubricating their rocker arms, the linkage that operated the engines' valves.

In a ceremony at Bolling Field on Jan. 26, 1929, the Air Corps decorated each member of the Question Mark's crew with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those who flew the tankers had to console themselves with the Biblical assurance that it is more blessed to give than to receive. At some later date letters of commendation were slipped quietly into their personnel files.

The flight of the Question Mark inadvertently established a precedent. Thereafter, in any operation involving inflight refueling, all accolades would be heaped on the crews of the receivers; only anonymity awaited the refueler crews who made the operation possible--and successful.

The Question Mark operation was predicated on its potential military utility. Five months later, in the spring of 1929, the Army Air Corps prepared a more formal demonstration of aerial refueling's military usefulness at the Fairfield Air Depot near Dayton, Ohio, in conjunction with an annual Army war game being played in maneuvers in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. A Keystone B-3A bomber and a Douglas tanker were to take off from Dayton, be refueled over Washington, D.C., at the end of the workday for maximum publicity, and then continue to New York City, where it would drop a flash bomb over the harbor. Returning, the bomber would again be refueled over Washington, D.C., and then proceed to its base in Ohio.

But a network of thunderstorms stood between Ohio and Washington. The bomber and tanker soon became separated and although the bomber managed to get through, icing conditions forced the tanker down at Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where it got stuck in the mud of soft field conditions. The bomber had enough fuel to push on to New York City and then back to Washington, but the tanker was still grounded at Uniontown. No aerial refueling operations took place.

This operation was supposed to demonstrate the "answer" to the Question Mark. Afterward, as far as the U.S. War Department and Air Corps were concerned, the answer was "Forget it!" For the next 12 years, they did exactly that.

The Rest of the Story

Those remain the opening chapters in this first century of A/R. To read more about the first 75 years of aerial refueling, visit: https://www.amc.af.mil/Portals/12/documents/AFD-141230-027.pdf