60 YEARS IN THE AIR: The KC-135 during the Vietnam War
By Airman 1st Class Tara Fadenrecht, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 28, 2015
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- (Editor's note: This article is part of a series looking back on the history of the KC-135 Stratotanker throughout the decades, leading up to the 60th anniversary of the KC-135's first flight in August 2016.)
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We've been struck by a missile," called the voice on the radio.
The transmission blared over the headsets of the crew on a KC-135 Stratotanker about to return to base after a successful refueling mission in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Retired Maj. Jim Hickman was the navigator on that tanker crew that received the distress signal and he vividly remembers the events that transpired shortly after. The crew members exchanged glances and began weighing their options, when Hickman made the call.
"Let's go get him," he said.
The tanker crew called back over the radio, verified the location of the distressed F-111 Aardvark and headed north until the two aircraft were in view of each other.
"He pulled in behind us, we got the boom into the receptacle and started transferring fuel," said the retired navigator.
It wasn't until the boom operator saw fuel spilling out of the aircraft that they realized the extent of the damage to the fighter. Getting the aircraft and its crew safely back to base was going to take a bit of ingenuity.
"We have a thing that we do called locking the toggles," said Hickman. "When you lock the toggles on a receiver you can actually tow him. So we did that, and kept giving him fuel."
The KC-135 towed the fighter through the skies of North Vietnam back to Thailand. When they got close to the base where the F-111 was operating out of, the boom operator unlocked the toggles, disconnected and the fighter glided in for a safe landing.
"That was probably one of the greatest experiences in all my time in the Strategic Air Command," said Hickman. "There were two crew members on there. If they would have bailed out they'd have been captured and thrown in prison."
The KC-135 aided more than just that endangered F-111 crew. A major role of the tanker during this time period was to assist the B-52 Stratofortress.
"We couldn't have survived without the KC-135 over there," said retired Maj. Wendell Skinner, former B-52 pilot. "We were flying 16-hour missions out of Guam. We couldn't carry enough fuel to complete the whole mission."
Thanks to the help of the tankers, B-52 crews made it to their destination and carried out their mission, helping save the lives of countless U.S. forces.
"Without the B-52 putting munitions on the ground we couldn't have supported the [Soldiers and Marines] down there trying to fight the battles," said the retired pilot. "We were attempting to curtail supply lines, we were hitting weapons arsenals and we were taking out as many of the resources as we could from the enemy so they couldn't continue to fight. We couldn't have put bombs on the ground without the KC-135s in the air."
The only thing left after a successful mission was to get back to base safely. Once again, the KC-135s made their presence known.
"To make it back to Guam we absolutely had to meet that tanker," said Skinner. "The tankers were always there, they were always on time and they enabled us to complete our mission."