Air University Review, January-February 1968

The KC-135 in Southeast Asia

Major Frank H. McArdle

During the early morning hours of 18 June 1965, B-52s struck Viet Cong targets in South Vietnam in their first actual bombardment mission. This date is generally considered as the entry of the Strategic Air Command into the conflict in Southeast Asia. But it was not.

During the year before, SAC had used the KC-135 to support fighter deployment into forward operating areas and had been refueling fighter strikes as early as January 1964. This employment of the KC-135 has been marked not by any one great dramatic action but by consistently excellent performance while refueling over 167,000 aircraft and offloading 1.7 billion pounds of fuel in supporting B-52 and fighter operations through June 1967.

Three very broad areas of operations are involved in SAC'S refueling responsibilities in the western Pacific:

1. Supporting the deployment of tactical fighters across the Pacific to forward operating bases.

2. Refueling support for Tactical Air Command strikes in combat operations against targets in North and South Vietnam.

3. Providing air refueling to western Pacific based B-52 combat operations.

The KC-135 was designed and built to provide refueling support of SAC's deterrent forces and primarily had been engaged in these strategic operations when TAC began phasing out its propeller and jet-augmented KB-50 in 1964. SAC had become the single manager of all Air Force KC-135 refueling in 1960. The command's mission was broadened to include refueling support for the Tactical Air Command. SAC began adapting its training and crew procedures and allocating its tanker resources to provide the fighters of the general-purpose forces with efficient and effective refueling. To the strategic environment within which SAC tanker forces operated was added a new and different medium of operation: the tactical environment. Resources for this increased responsibility came from SAC's forces in-being, with no degrading of its deterrent structure or lessening of its Single Integrated Operations Plan capability. Scheduling and managerial functions were expanded to allow additional uses of the SAC tanker force while maintaining its primary mission of supporting the manned bomber portion of SAC'S deterrent strength.

The Boeing KC-135 is a high-speed, high-altitude airplane capable of offloading any part of its 200,000-pound fuel capacity. Operating throughout the world under a variety of conditions, in climates ranging from the frozen arctic to the hot, humid tropics, this tanker also can transport 83,000 pounds of cargo, 80 passengers, or any combination of the two. A team of four highly trained individuals comprises the small crew of this large multiengine aircraft. Crew integrity is a command policy and plays an important role in the successful employment of the KC-135. The mission of the aircraft and size of its crew demand that each member be skilled in a variety of tasks; therefore, duties normally performed by flight engineers, loadmasters, and others are divided among the four crew positions. In addition to normal duties the two pilots are responsible for environmental control, electronics, hydraulics, engine performance, and fuel management. The latter duty includes distribution and balance of as much as 100 tons of fuel and safely offloading some of it to receiver aircraft.

Navigation and electronic rendezvous with receivers are the tasks of the third member of the crew, the navigator. He is assisted in part by the boom operator, who makes celestial observations using a periscopic sextant. The boom operator is also the weight and balance technician, but his principal task is flying the 47-foot boom into the receptacle of the receiver aircraft to permit fuel transfer. This operation is usually performed silently, but often the boom operator talks the receiver pilot into position in much the same way a radar controller directs a landing by use of the ground-controlled approach technique.

Skill levels required of SAC tanker crews are maintained through constant and exacting training missions, which are designed to provide each crew with a continuing variety of conditions in which to operate and which very closely duplicate actual combat missions in duration and objectives. These missions provide excellent experience, realistic training, and a firm foundation of fundamental tactics and procedures. Rigid training requirements for all tanker crews are identical throughout the command and are accomplished by using standardized procedures. Uniform quantity and quality of flying training and combat-readiness levels are maintained through realistic exercises. Objective evaluations of the exercises enable measurement of crew and unit capability and have provided the basis for an effective and efficient transition from a training environment to actual combat refueling missions. This transition, managed with no significant changes in operation or employment principles, was guided by SAC's tactical doctrine and demonstrated the soundness of training procedures and techniques developed by the command for its tanker forces over a period of years.

fighter deployment

Providing effective and timely response to operational commitments in Southeast Asia requires a network of bases, extensive communications, supply and maintenance facilities, and a vast amount of detailed planning and programming. Fighter deployments and daily combat refueling of strategic and tactical aircraft utilize common resources of planes, crews, and support facilities and are centrally commanded and controlled. These operations are carried out at changing levels of intensity and involve every SAC base in the zone of interior, thus extending the operation halfway around the world. For clarity and exposition, the three refueling functions will be described separately, although actually certain SAC organizations serve all phases of tanker operations in the Pacific, and the mission assigned to flight crews may involve anyone of the three on a given day.

 To handle the steady stream of traffic into the Pacific and to maximize the benefits gained through repetitive operations, two bases are utilized as staging areas through which flow, almost without exception, all westward tanker deployments. Refueling support for fighter movements originates from March Air Force Base, California. A task force organized for this specific purpose is the briefing and planning agency for SAC. It coordinates with TAC agencies all fighter movements into the area. Tanker crews, on temporary duty for about ten-day periods, arrive at March the day before scheduled departure for specialized route briefing. Normally two fighters are programmed against a single tanker for the deployment across the Pacific, but often two or more tankers escort and refuel a cell of fighters. In this case a task force commander is assigned to the operation and acts as the single point of contact for such items as scheduling briefings and enroute support.

At Hickam AFB a permanent SAC staff and 24-hour command post assist all operations passing through this Hawaiian base. The SAC Current Operations Section provides mission briefings and communications assistance and arranges crew rest facilities and maintenance support with the host base, also working hand-in-hand with TAC's aircraft delivery group in preparation for the 3300-mile flight from Hawaii to Guam. After launch, the fighters, which may have departed from another base, rendezvous with the tanker off the California coast, and the formation is joined for the overwater flight. At this point the techniques and procedures developed through countless training missions begin the payoff on their investment cost. Once over the water on the long leg to Hawaii the mission ceases to be "training."

Navigation and fuel now become the center of interest, and the KC-135 provides both critical items. Celestial navigation is the primary means of directing the flight to destination. The navigator is assisted in this task by the boom operator, who alternates duties between the front and rear of the plane: forward he obtains the celestial observations necessary for precise navigation; in the rear, from his position beneath the empennage, he directs the receiver into position and performs the hook-up that allows fuel to be transferred and the mission to continue.

Shortly after level off the first fuel is offloaded to check out receiver refueling systems and top off tanks. If all is in order, the mission continues; if not, the mission returns to base. The single most important item to the success of missions over long stretches of the Pacific is the fuel remaining in the fighters' tanks. Each overwater leg is divided into several decision points. At these points fighters must have a prescribed amount of fuel "in tanks": the amount that will allow the fighters to return or divert to a designated base or continue to their destination with no further refueling. Planners, experienced in the aircraft being deployed, carefully calculate these bingo points and bingo fuel requirements, as they are known. At these bingo points the decision becomes one of the "either-or" variety, and the final decision rests with the flight leader, the tanker commander. Either the fighter has the required minimum fuel remaining in his tanks to continue to destination, or he turns around. Any malfunction in either the tanker or receiver which delays a refueling beyond a bingo point, even if it is of a temporary nature, such as a faulty circuit breaker that could be corrected within five minutes, causes the mission to return to base. These refuelings allow but one course of action up to a certain point in the flight plan, then immediately change to another, now a committed course of action, with the assurance that the fuel in tanks will be sufficient to reach the landing base safely.

Missions of this nature require close coordination and communication between the tanker and its receivers. Usually there is little idle conversation, not because of any dictate but because crews are deeply occupied with the business at hand. Fuel bookkeeping is maintained by the KC-135 copilot and navigator, who monitor and adjust bingo points and fuel for winds and weather, constantly crosschecking to avoid any possible error and advising the receiver pilots of fuel status and mission progress. Flight profiles are a compromise between the respective optimum altitudes and speeds of the receiver and the tanker and are planned to provide the maximum fuel offload capability, thereby providing quantum increases in fighter range and significantly reducing time en route. Once radio and radar contact is established with Honolulu Center, the fighters come under its control and precede the tankers for landing. The first leg of the mission is completed.

The number of fighters involved in the movement and the length of the leg from Hawaii to Guam sometimes require the use of augmenting tankers. The addition of even a single tanker to a flight greatly increases range capability and assures fuel reserves for all aircraft well above the minimum acceptable. Offloading all transferable fuel from the augmenting KC-135 first, before any other tanker is used, leaves the remaining tankers with practically a full supply for the deploying fighters. As the lone KC-135 leaves its formation, the flight of fighters and remaining tankers continue westward over the Pacific toward Guam. The tanker whose mission is completed provides planners with a resource capable of producing dividends from several promising alternatives: the KC-135 may return directly to Hickam for further employment; it may recover into Wake Island for servicing and a turnaround mission refueling eastbound or westbound aircraft; or, if the tanker's deployment mission is complete, the aircraft and crew may be returned directly to its home base in the United States. The use of an augmenting tanker in and out of Wake Island is an example of matching command requirements with the potential of the KC-135. High-frequency radio communications and position reporting to traffic control facilities are provided by the KC-135. These long-range communications greatly enhance the efficiency of the operation and provide command control of the deploying force and its response to mission needs. SAC radio networks furnish direct air-ground communications between the enroute tankers and the control agency to provide information on mission progress, crew status, and maintenance requirements.

At Guam the mission is almost complete except for final delivery of the fighters to their destination. Essentially the same permission events take place as before: briefings on communication procedures, en route weather, and emergency procedures. The next day the tanker-fighter combination departs Guam for the final stage of its flight. Somewhere over the western Pacific the fighters leave their tanker escort, which, after many hours of close flying, has become a familiar and trusted friend. Assured through the KC-135's high-frequency radio of favorable landing conditions and weather en route, the fighters continue to their destination, and the tankers return to Guam. The fighter deployment is now complete, and the tankers have accomplished their task. They have escorted and refueled fighters that may have started their journey halfway around the world. The fuel transferred by the tankers has extended the range of the fighters almost to the physical limits of their human crew.

No longer responsible for the fighters, the tanker and crew must now return to the United States. Flying east from Guam, the plane usually carries a mix of cargo and passengers, fully using its large interior and providing the command with fast return of high-value items to repair depots and a source of transportation for cargo and passengers.

two operating environments

One important portion of SAC's tanker mission has been described. Now let us turn to the actual combat employment of the KC-135. The mission of this airplane can be simply stated: it refuels bombers and fighters. The way in which it is employed in these two roles reveals the effectiveness of this aircraft. The distance of targets from the refueling area and the range of receivers are two marks differentiating the fighter and bomber refueling missions. In one, the targets are close, minutes from final fuel transfer and sometimes within sight of the tanker crew; in the other, targets are distant, unknown to tanker crews, and often hours from refueling. The bomber mission is characterized by exacting and mandatory timing requirements, precise airspeed and altitude schedules, prescribed navigation, detailed flight plans, and large offloads. The mission is flown in radio silence. Missions flown in support of fighters are also minutely planned and carefully flown, using established procedures for each phase of flight; but the tactical fighter environment is characterized by the tanker's reaction to the needs of the receiver. These needs are the distinguishing feature of this environment, for missions change daily, hourly, and often after takeoff, necessitating quick changes in timing, routes, and refueling areas. If the tactical situation dictates rapid changes for fighter missions to exploit an unanticipated advantage or in response to ground support needs, it follows that the SAC tanker force must also respond and be just as flexible. In fact, much of the rapid response of fighters is dependent upon assured refueling. It is well to point out that strategic bomber receivers also are capable of rapid response to tactical situations, but their refueling environment changes little, if at all.

KC-135s are employed in supporting B-52 strikes, illustrating SAC's application of air refueling to the contingency mission. The tanker force and flight crews are usually from the same organization as the bombers they support, since bombardment wings with their integral tankers are deployed overseas on temporary duty for periods of about six months. Entire aircraft maintenance organizations, armament and electronic technicians, ground refueling specialists, and all essential support skills accompany aircraft and crews forward and come under the operational control of the 3d Air Division headquartered on Guam. The forward bases are staffed by permanent party to assist these temporary units in getting established. Phase-in of arriving organizations is done gradually, on a carefully controlled basis, to allow an overlap of tactical combat qualified crews. This system is command policy and has been used over a period of years to provide an orderly flow of units from the ZI to overseas bases while sustaining required combat potential. By the time a bomb wing's last crew arrives forward, weeks after the start of the operation, the organization has gained a large reservoir of mission experience, and newly arrived crews are absorbed into the operation with no decrease in mission effectiveness.

Refueling large numbers of B-52s engaged in actual bombardment posed familiar problems but on a daily basis and much larger scale than training missions. Rendezvous, navigation problems, and myriad other considerations all add to the difficulties encountered on anyone mission, in fair weather or foul, day or night. B-52 missions are flown under absolute radio silence. This demands precise scheduling, exact timing, and thorough crew knowledge of mission flight plans and objectives.

Before flying their first mission, SAC tanker crews are thoroughly briefed on the general support of B-52 operations. Mission construction, tactics, and flight plans are systematically analyzed during two days of intensive study of preplanned or "canned" missions. Staff officers and specialists in each crew position supervise the study periods, answer questions, and assist crews. Comprehensive written examinations are administered, to evaluate crew preparation and knowledge and to assure that they are completely prepared.

If one were to fly aboard a KC-135 as an observer during a B-52 mission, one characteristic of the flight would be most apparent: the radio silence. The entire mission is performed that way—engine start, taxi, takeoff, assembly, enroute formation, and refueling. Weather obstacles such as tropic storms are circumnavigated silently, each plane following its predecessor by means of radar station-keeping at the planned altitude and at an exact distance behind the flight leader, who is responsible for navigation and timing. Time may be gained or lost as necessary, and flight plans provide for this contingency. Crews follow their flight leader while maintaining their own navigation data. Thus each knows exactly how much time must be lost or gained and anticipates spacing turns and maneuvers accordingly. Rendezvous is scheduled for an exact time and. precise coordinates. It is effected hours after takeoff, without any verbal contact between the aircraft. Proper join-up of programmed tanker-receiver combinations is accomplished by means of coded electronic signals. Bomber streams are staggered into planned refueling areas and altitude blocks so as to provide a safe, steady flow of movement through this critical phase of flight and to allow reassembly, once refueling is complete. 

Actual hook-up and fuel transfer are routine, for each crew has performed this maneuver hundreds of times in the past. In the radio silence, the only conversation heard is interphone communication among the crew. Tankers need only provide the briefed fuel to complete their mission. Once fuel transfer is complete, tankers reform into enroute formation and proceed to destination. At a planned distance out from the recovery base, radio silence is finally broken to facilitate the landing phase of the operation. Even this phase is critical, for often large numbers of tankers recover in a relatively short span of time, and delays or missed approaches can slow the entire recovery effort.

The flight is complete upon landing, but the mission is not. Aircraft must be inspected, serviced, repaired if necessary, and prepared for the next mission. Flight crews are debriefed by a team of specialists. Equipment discrepancies discovered during flight are discussed in detail with the crew, much as a doctor discusses symptoms with a patient. The lessons learned are analyzed, and any weak area in crew or aircraft performance, mission structure, or tactics is investigated and corrected. Only after all paperwork is complete is the mission concluded. Critiques provide information essential to continue a successful and increasingly effective operation.

refueling fighter missions

Hundreds of training missions have prepared the tanker crews for refueling combat—bound B-52s. At their home base, before each ground alert tour, tanker crews receive comprehensive briefings and study their portion of SAC's emergency war orders. They study the tactics and employment of the KC-135 in strategic operations. As has been shown, refueling a B-52 in Southeast Asia is an extension of the strategic mission, modified very slightly and adapted to that situation. However, refueling a variety of tactical fighters dictates marked changes in tanker operations, for most of them are weighted down with externally mounted weapons and refueling takes place close to the area of conflict.

Examination of the areas in which operations against North Vietnam are conducted reveals that airspace over the land mass of Southeast Asia is limited by sovereign borders. Over international waters, it also is severely restricted in certain regions. This limitation on freedom of movement is a significant constraint in fighter refueling operations. The number of fighters involved is another factor that produces changes in flying tanker missions. Obviously the fuel capacity of the KC-135 enables it to handle several fighters, and when refueling near the target area the tanker is capable of handling many. Performance of fighters also influences the employment of the KC-135, particularly in low-level fighter operations directed against northern targets.1

Manning for this phase of SAC’s refueling commitment is supplied from the ZI on a temporary basis. Flight crews and maintenance teams are funneled through Castle Air Force Base, California, to Thailand, for periods of about 60 days. A cadre of permanent party is thereby augmented by a programmed selection of maintenance skills on a sustained basis. Managing the operations this way (rather than with all permanent party) is profitable because it provides any maintenance and flight crews experience in combat refueling, valuable maintenance data on aircraft and systems reliability, and a continual source of organic transport of supplies and personnel to and from the Unites States. This logistical effort carried 24,000 tons of cargo and transported 40,000 individuals in 1966.2

When crews arrive in Thailand, they are briefed on all aspects of fighter refueling operations. They spend a full day in specialized preparation and general study before flying actual missions. Before each mission, the briefing covers coordination for refueling fighter strikes, radio frequencies to be used, and call signs, and each crew is given composite mission sheets of the day’s activity, to enable it to fly all or any part of another refueling mission without further briefing. The missions flown in several refueling areas are almost identical, and a crew needs only the information contained on the composite sheet to fly either solo operations or as part of a formation of tankers in any refueling area. A significant aspect of refueling fighters in Southeast Asia which has been influential in changing tanker tactics is the relatively narrow confines within which refueling takes place. The necessity of respecting international boundaries, always allowing a buffer zone considerably narrows the overwater corridor within which the KC-135s and receivers regularly operate. The same general situation exists in airspace over land areas and poses similar restrictions on freedom of movement.

Sustained operations place large numbers of aircraft in refueling areas at any given time.  Traffic control is complicated because of the number of flights which must be refueled in minimum time and because one tanker is scheduled for multiple flights of receivers and proceeds back and forth over the area several times, dropping off receivers and picking up new ones while other tankers do the same. Altitude differentials provide vertical separation, while timing and scheduling assist in maintaining the horizontal distance between flights. Radar controllers act as coordinators and assist the orderly flow of traffic in each area.

Another difference in the tactical situation is the number of fighters involved in the refueling effort, since the smaller fuel capacity of fighters allows a higher ratio of receivers to tankers. Fighter strike missions consisting of multiple waves can often be handled by just a few tankers; ratios of 16:1 are common and do not tax the fuel offload capability of the KC-135. Changes in fighter tactics have produced consequent changes in the employment of the SAC tanker force. Response to low-level operations of TAC fighters resulted in lowering refueling altitudes, which, prior to operations in Vietnam, were conducted above 25,000 feet. Normally refueling takes place at altitudes near the optimum for each of the aircraft involved, and benefits from this type of operation are obvious when considering fuel economy and range. Lowering the refueling altitude to between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, with much of the refueling done at the lower levels, has only slightly diminished the tanker's effectiveness. However, the fuel-economy/altitude trade-off is considered insignificant because of mission duration and capacity of the tanker, and it is mentioned only to provide an accurate account of the changes in employment dictated by the environment.

Weather is an important part of any flight environment and is especially important over Southeast Asia. Moist air is present, and thunderstorms and rain are a daily occurrence over most of the area. The conditions add to the list of factors already mentioned which influence tanker operations. The weather phenomena most likely to hamper refueling operations occur at the lower levels. Although refueling is routine in most kinds of weather and cloud formations, the clouds present in these areas and altitudes are the cumulus type, often with heavy rain and turbulence which hinder jet fighters carrying external ordnance and hamper the tanker pilot working to hold a stable refueling platform. Refueling can be accomplished at these altitudes, but tactics employed by the SAC tanker force are varied to adapt to the situation and provide effective support of the tactical fighter.

The full panorama of the tactical refueling environment now begins to come into focus. A mission directed to refueling tactical fighters in Southeast Asia may have any or all of the following characteristics: a high ratio of fighters to tankers, low-level operations in tropic weather, multiple tanker-receiver combinations, and limited airspace. Once en route to a refueling area, a solo tanker or the leader of a formation of tankers contacts the ground controller responsible for radar monitoring of all aircraft in a particular section. Coded messages are exchanged and authenticated to establish identity, and the rendezvous begins under radar direction. Initial join-up is made under the direction of the ground controller, who is intimately aware of the day's activities and thoroughly experienced with speed differentials, turn ranges, and aircraft performance.

Flight identity is established by use of radar transponders, and cell join-up is then effected. Receivers form off the tanker's tail and slightly to one side while awaiting their turn on the boom. During the offloading process the tanker proceeds on course to the end-refueling or drop-off point. Often a drop-off control time is required for tactical reasons, which necessitates maneuvering by the tanker. This must be coordinated with the radar controller, for there are limits to the maneuvering airspace. Other tanker-receiver combinations also may be altering course for the same reason or to avoid heavy cloud formations, whose turbulence can upset timing by bouncing receivers off the boom or making hook-up difficult. An altitude is assigned to each tanker, but often changes of one or a few thousand feet make the difference between successful offload and timing or delayed refuelings. Naturally, the mission is paramount, and changes are coordinated with the ground controller. This leads to an unusual amount of interphone and radio communication. While altitude and heading changes are being coordinated with the ground controller, the boom operator may be talking a receiver into position, and the second flight of fighters is probably airborne and identifying themselves to the controller and asking vectors to their tankers.

Distance-measuring equipment in the aircraft is an excellent help in establishing position, particularly because of the extensive maneuvering required. Airborne radio direction-finding equipment is used to assist rendezvous. Both these kinds of equipment have proven valuable in tactical operations; and with airborne radar they are effective and are used extensively in getting the receiver mated with the correct tanker. Time intervals between receiver flights depend upon tactical requirements. Often these intervals are very close, with one flight cell waiting in position for the other to clear the boom so it can begin refueling.

While refueling is in progress and maneuvering is taking place, tanker crew members are busy with their respective professional specialties. Each one performs a part of the entire operation, all the coordinated parts together making up the employment of a single KC-135 in the tactical environment. The navigator is busily keeping track of the aircraft position relative to end-refueling points, control times, and international boundaries; the copilot is managing and balancing the fuel load while pumping it to the receiver and monitoring the radios; the boom operator is engaged in the most important job at hand, getting the boom into the receiver for the fuel transfer; and the pilot is monitoring the entire operation on radio and interphone, following the directions of the navigator and ground controller, talking with the receiver, and evaluating the weather conditions for possible maneuvering.

Formations of tankers are handled in much the same manner. However, the formation required for fighter aircraft differs from the bombardment formation. Again, response to the operating environment dictated the change, and tankers generally refuel in-trail, offset from the leader only a few degrees. Strategic operations make freer use of offset procedures and increase the distance between tankers. In each environment, vertical separation is maintained for safety. In strategic operations the aircraft do not generally require much maneuvering; however, in tactical operations the limited airspace, weather at lower altitudes, and control time problems require considerable maneuvering, even with large numbers of aircraft. This is done safely by freely using radios and following the flight commander's and ground controller's instructions. Weather encountered during refueling is more restrictive than prohibitive in nature and poses no serious navigation or flight following problem. Spacing of tankers is maintained by means of aircraft radar. Fighters, accustomed to close formation flying, move in closer to maintain visual contact during weather penetration, keeping the formation intact. Airborne and ground radar, visual observation, and pilot reports help the crews to remain clear of turbulent areas. Once receivers are off the boom and until the next flight of fighters is in position, the tankers are somewhat less concerned with the weather, although weather never ceases to be a factor. Speed and flight path are adjusted to make good the next control time or rendezvous point, and the cycle of hook-up, offload, and maneuver begins anew.

Bingo fuel is an item of critical interest in deploying fighters across the Pacific. In tactical operations, the situation is reversed, and bingo fuel becomes the concern of the tanker. Refueling many fighters, coupled with higher fuel consumption at the lower altitudes, can deplete the tanker's fuel supply more rapidly. Consequently each refueling area has its own bingo fuel limit for a tanker. When fuel "in tanks" reaches bingo, the tanker is cleared from the area by the ground controller and climbs to optimum altitude for the flight to its recovery base. The chance of fuel reaching bingo level is not a concern on outbound missions because of known adequacy.

However, such concern may be a significant factor if the tanker remains on station for random post-strike refueling. In this case it may reach bingo fuel while fighters are exiting the target area. The situation poses no serious problem because the multiple tankers involved are always capable of fulfilling the needs of returning fighter aircraft, which may need only partial refueling to keep landing weights within limits. If post-strike refueling is programmed or appears necessary, a full tanker is dispatched for that specific purpose. If it is not used, nothing is lost, and the tradeoff is well worth the small price: fuel expended versus assured refueling and recovery of valuable aircraft and crews.

The excellent capabilities of the KC-135 are clearly demonstrated in its employment in rescue missions. Much has been written of the lengths to which the Air Force goes in rescuing downed pilots, so this aspect need not be reviewed here. A network of communications, an airborne command post, poised helicopters, and tactical fighter cover all contribute to this vital operation. Contributing equally, although more remote from the dramatic scene, are SAC tankers which quietly provide fuel to fighters, allowing a protective cover to be flown over the downed airman.

When a pilot is down in hostile territory, air cover is an immediate necessity, and there can be no delay in organizing his rescue. If he is spotted by his wingman or other aircraft, half remain in the area, flying cover, while the others leave and call for rendezvous with a tanker. The events which then rapidly take place make full use of the assets of the KC-135 in the tactical environment. Radar controllers query tankers in the area as to their fuel status, and replies are given in "Bingo plus—pounds of fuel." This provides controllers with vital information and provides a priority of tanker selection to handle those fighters which need fuel because of maneuvering over the downed pilot. Rendezvous is made by the quickest means (usually a combination of radar, radio direction-finding, and distance-measuring equipment), and fuel is offloaded to the fighters who know the exact location of the downed pilot. When refueled, they begin a shuttle between the tankers and the scene of action, relieving those planes which remained and are now in need of fuel. When word of a possible rescue operation is received, a tanker on ground alert for this specific purpose takes off with full tanks and heads for the rendezvous area. Ground radar controllers position the KC-135 in an orbit at the best location for refueling the fighters, which shuttle back and forth, providing constant protection for the airman and communications with his rescuers en route. Rescue operations begin without any immediate forecast and develop rapidly, despite all the constraints and problems inherent in the tactical environment. SAC KC-135 tankers respond with their full capability and play a distant but important role in the drama. Fortunately, not all damaged planes are lost; some fighters consume much fuel in maneuvering or dog-fighting and require emergency refueling to insure a safe return to base. During 1966 fifty-one fighters with almost empty tanks were saved by KC-135s.3

A comment is in order about refueling areas. They are busy, crowded at times, and some of them are confining. A question often asked is: "Why not get more?" The answer is not more refueling areas; it is to make better use of those already in existence. This is done through advanced and changing tactics and effective response to the situation as it exists in daily operations. To do so any other way would upset the priority of principals. SAC does not dictate to PACAF when and where to refuel because SAC does not determine the fighter missions' requirements. An analysis of SAC tanker operations in the tactical environment can best be summarized by stating that the KC-135 is employed in a way which maximizes its operational capabilities, overcomes the disadvantages of use at low altitude, and, most important, satisfies the needs of the consumer.

Travis Air Force Base, California


1. Major General George B. SimIer, "North Vietnam's Air Defense System," Air Force and Space Digest, L, 5 (May 1967), 82.

2. Major General George B. Simler, "Wing of the Month -4252 Strategic Wing," Combat Crew, XVIII, 3 (April 1967), 19.

3. Ibid.


Major Frank H. McArdle (M.S., George Washington University) is a KC-135 instructor and crew commander, 916th Air Refueling Squadron, Travis AFB, California. He received a reserve commission in 1951 and after navigator training was assigned to Biggs AFB, Texas, as a crewman on SAC's first tanker, the KB-29. He completed pilot training in 1954 and served as Squadron Maintenance Officer and Wing Standardization Pilot in KC-97s at Schilling AFB, Kansas, until 1960. Other assignments have been as Chief, Command Flight Crews, and special mission pilot, 1st Strategic Aerospace Division, Vandenberg AFB, California, to 1962; Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General, Vandenberg AFB, to 1963; and Division Administrative Officer, Whiteman AFB, Missouri, to 1965. He recently completed 35 combat refueling sorties in Southeast Asia. Major McArdle is a graduate of the USAF Instrument Pilot Instructor School, Squadron Officer School, and Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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