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Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 11: Strategic Air Command, Part 3

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[AVweb's reprint of Dick's memoir began with the Introduction.]

Skywritings

Flying a KC-97 during an aerial refueling embodies all the basics used by a good formation leader; for example, don't move the tanker any more than absolutely necessary, make all movements as smooth as possible, and -- unique to the KC-97/B-47 combination -- fly as fast as you can.

KC-97 offloading fuel to a B-47

Most of our refuelings took place in straight-line flight; when turns or altitude changes were necessary, we did so very gently, keeping in mind there was a 200,000-pound airplane flying in close formation directly behind us. On the tanker flight deck, we could tell when a B-47 was in position and ready to receive fuel because the bow wave of the bomber caused a slight nose-down pitch change and a gentle push from behind. The boom was flown into position, and when the boomer had it lined up with the receptacle in the nose of the bomber, he would extend the nozzle the remaining foot or so to engage the locks and start the flow of fuel. There was always some movement taking place between the two airplanes and the boom, but there were also three-dimensional limits; if for any reason the boom was moved too far left or right, forward or back, or too high or low, the boom would automatically disconnect and retract.

View from the receiver's cockpit

B-47 pilots became very adept at controlling their airplanes while being refueled. I recall one instructor who would demonstrate the limits to a new bomber pilot by flying the airplane to the inner limit of the boom, fly completely around the edges of that imaginary surface, then back off and do the same for the outer limits without causing a disconnect ... that's flying with finesse. The boom had another feature, intended for emergency use only. Especially when a KC-97 was loaded to 175,000 pounds, it would probably not be able to climb if an engine failed before the wing flaps were retracted from the takeoff setting. In this situation, the Aircraft Commander needed only to say, "Dump!" to the engineer, who would then activate a gang-bar that operated several switches at once to open the valves, start the pumps and ... voila! ... fuel poured from the boom at the rate of about 5,000 pounds per minute. When the first KC-97s were delivered to the 306th Air Refueling Squadron at MacDill AFB in 1951, they represented a significant step forward in aerial-refueling technology, evidenced by their ability to carry much more off-loadable fuel than the KB-29s and KB-50s they replaced; nevertheless, the 97s were grossly inefficient from the outset. All turbine-powered aircraft achieve their best speed and efficiency at high altitudes, a fact that leads to the jet-pilot's philosophy that you should "climb as high as you can as fast as you can, and stay there as long as you can." Considering that B-47s were operated routinely at over 30,000 feet at speeds of 400-500 knots and KC-97s were seldom flown higher than the teens and couldn't produce much more than 200 knots of airspeed, the disparity in performance became a major consideration. When a jet bomber descends 20,000 feet or more to take on fuel, it loses not only the time required to descend, refuel and climb back to its cruising altitude, it loses a significant amount of range because of the increased fuel burn at the refueling altitude. This situation was somewhat better than in pre-KC-97 days, but not much ... true aerial-refueling efficiency would have to wait for jet tankers to appear on the scene. In addition to the range penalty, the B-47 became much more difficult to handle at the lower airspeed of the KC-97; by the time the bomber's tanks were filled it might be 20,000 or 30,000 pounds heavier, a weight that required a relatively high pitch attitude to stay in the air at the tanker's lower speed. The only workable solution was to increase the speed of the tankers by entering a descent when the bomber's weight required more airspeed to avoid stalling. (Tanker engines were limited to short periods of time at cruise power settings higher than normal.) This procedure eventually became official and was called "tobogganing" -- it provided some relief in the form of better aircraft control, but further descent didn't do much for overall bomber efficiency. (When the KC-135 tanker showed up in 1957, with four jet engines and cruise speeds that matched the receivers', it was a new ball game; bomber pilots now had to ask the tankers to slow down a bit so they could rendezvous for refueling.) I completed the C-97 simulator course at West Palm Beach AFB and returned to MacDill and my regular crew assignment in August 1956. For the remainder of the summer, we flew two or three times a week on average, providing the tanker component for bomber refueling practice. Our "customers" were mostly B-47s from the SAC bases in Florida and the southeast U.S. We flew single-tanker missions as well as "cells" (formations of several tankers and bombers practicing enroute-to-the-target refueling procedures). Without a doubt the least interesting of the single-tanker flights was the so-called "Taxi" mission, on which we departed MacDill and climbed eastbound to 15,000 feet, where we leveled off and continued to Melbourne, Fla. Then we did a 180 and returned to Tampa, turned east again, and flew this 105-mile racetrack pattern for four hours, sometimes longer, refueling any B-47s whose pilots needed the practice. In mid-summer 1956 the 306th ARS was ordered to move its airplanes, personnel and support equipment to Ben Guerir Air Base in French Morocco for 90-days of temporary duty (TDY) commencing in October. Ben Guerir was one of five such bases built in North Africa during the Cold War to facilitate rapid deployment of armed B-47s able to reach their targets in the USSR without refueling. Tankers were included in the move to support second-wave bombers from the U.S. if that became necessary. Our deployment to Morocco was part of the "Reflex" program launched in the early '50s to reduce target potential by dispersing SAC aircraft, weapons, and personnel to other bases; these 90-day exercises became annual events for most SAC units. The straight-line distance from Tampa to Ben Guerir is about 4,300 miles; a KC-97 with a full load of fuel might have been able to make it non-stop with good winds but the fuel reserve would have been little more than fumes. The alternative was a fuel stop at Lajes Air Base on Terciera Island in the Azores, a group of islands 1200 miles west-northwest of Ben Guerir. In 1956 the Lajes facility (owned by Portugal and operated in partnership with the USAF) was the crossroads of the Atlantic as far as propellor-driven military airplanes were concerned: A 10,000-foot runway, reasonably good weather and ample service facilities made it the logical refueling choice for Military Air Transport Service (MATS) and SAC aircraft transiting the Atlantic in both directions. Following a lengthy maintenance delay, we departed MacDill at 10 p.m. on October 21, eastbound for the Azores (the late-night takeoff time guaranteed arrival in broad daylight) and we landed at Lajes 14 hours later, looking forward to showers, hot meals and a good night's sleep. Post-flight chores completed, we were transported to our quarters in a GI 6X6 truck with a canvas top, bench seats and a sign on the front bumper announcing this was a "SAC CREW BUS" -- a bit of overstatement? The "bus" deposited us in a neighborhood of corrugated steel Quonset huts that were probably relics of World War II, offering bare concrete floors, double-deck steel bunks and pot-bellied oil-fired stoves capable of almost overcoming the island's post-sunset cold.

Main gate sign at our TDY home

Another airplane maintenance problem delayed us further but we finally arrived at Ben Guerir on October 25 after a short flight of five hours. Viewed from the air, the single asphalt runway -- 13,700 feet long and 200 feet wide -- looked like a thin black scratch on the desert, generating an illusion of height that confused more than one pilot.

Interior of typical two-man Dallas hut

For the next three months, "home" would be another hut, this time "Dallas" instead of "Quonset," la our most recent quarters at Lajes. The Dallas huts were square structures about 20 feet on each side, faced inside and out with plywood and featuring hinged panels that provided ventilation when they were propped open. These screened openings also provided entertainment for our more rowdy squadron mates late at night when they wandered through the compound knocking out the props, creating enough noise to wake up everyone in the area.

Two-wheel parking lot with Dallas huts in the background

The parking lot deserves a bit of explanation. Tampa's year-round warm weather encouraged the use of scooters and motorcycles at MacDill (there were 700-odd two-wheeled vehicles registered on the base) and some of us loaded our bikes on the tankers when we deployed to "scooter friendly" locations. The squadron CO was well aware of this practice and looked the other way, but he had to impose a limit when things got out of hand; scooters were OK, he said, but no more full-sized motorcycles.

The author on a tour of the Ben Guerir perimeter

The flying schedule at Ben Guerir consisted of the usual four-hour refueling missions and occasional longer flights for navigator proficiency in an area practically devoid of electronic navaids. The real reason for our presence in Morocco became clear early in the deployment when a disturbance in the Middle East put all the SAC facilities on alert. We had hoped there would be enough off-duty time to visit the city of Marrakech, some 30 miles south, but that trip was scrubbed; the only time we were off the base was the time we were in the air.

The Rockland Palace Theater

With little to do in the way of entertainment we relied heavily on the base theater. Prior to our arrival a contest had been conducted to select a name for the building and the winner -- paying homage to the Ben Guerir landscape -- was "The Rockland Palace Theater" (the "D" in "Rockland" was probably blown away by one of the frequent desert windstorms). At the end of our tour we departed Ben Guerir for home via Lajes and a second fuel stop in Bermuda ... not an unexpected routing in consideration of the strong westerly winds that prevailed in December. The following year -- 1957 -- was rather unremarkable with regard to routine refueling missions (almost all of them were local flights, i.e., MacDill to MacDill with several hours of flying in-between). I logged an average of about two flights a week, including one that turned out to be the longest flight in my experience. The squadron had deployed again to Ben Guerir in the fall of '57 and on the return flight everything worked in our favor; the usual headwind failed to materialize, all four engines were running as advertised, and approaching Bermuda our fuel state looked good for continuing to MacDill, which we did ... total time enroute was 20 hours and five minutes. In the spring of 1958 I was assigned to the Standardization and Evaluation Board ("Standboard" in Air Force talk) to assist in flight checks administered to line crews on a periodic basis. My new AC was Major Bill Apgar, one of the most competent and congenial officers in the squadron.

Thule, Greenland -- truly, at the "top of the world"

When Reflex assignments for 1958 came out, the 306th was ordered to Thule AFB on the northwest coast of Greenland. That was the bad news; winter in Thule is three or four months of total darkness, temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero and surface winds that pushed wind-chill values off the charts. Now, the good news: We wouldn't be there in the winter; our 90-day tour would coincide with Greenland's summer season, when daily highs would be in the 40s and 50s, the wind would be light and the sun would never set. Almost everything about Greenland is unique, from its size (largest island in the world) to its distance from the North Pole (only 840 miles at its closest point) to its trees (of which there are none).

Thule Air Force Base, summertime (1989), North Star Bay in the background

Thule Air Force Base, conceived as a key part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, was completed in 1953 after a two-year construction effort that has been compared to digging the Panama Canal. It is the northernmost installation of U.S. Armed Forces.

Typical barracks construction at Thule AFB

Discounting for the moment the horrible winter weather, Greenland's permanently frozen soil, known as "permafrost," was perhaps the biggest construction problem. There are no basements at Thule and most of the buildings were set on blocks to prevent them from melting into the permafrost. Barracks walls were thick aluminum panels intended for use in commercial refrigeration installations to keep the cold in. At Thule, the walls kept the super-cold out. The black rectangles in the walls are windows with sliding shades so the occupants can shut out the sunlight and get some sleep during the 24-hour daylight. It was somewhat disconcerting to go outside at noon and see the sun orbiting in a tight circle directly overhead.

One of Thule's "honey wagons" at work

The permafrost and the winter temperatures precluded any outdoor plumbing, so each building was completely independent regarding water supply and waste disposal. One set of tanks held fresh water for drinking, showering, etc., and another set was for waste water; a fleet of large, purpose-built trucks ("honey wagons") had the very unpleasant job of pumping the waste tanks dry.

Marine-style commode in a Thule barracks

Some of the water supply was used for more personal needs ... the handle on the right is not a gear-shift lever, and the pedal on the floor is not a clutch. The personnel who worked on the honey wagons had a special going-away party whenever one of their group completed his tour and departed Thule. They gathered for the "uniform-burning" ceremony because no matter how vigorously and frequently their clothing was washed, the odor remained. A military installation as unique as Thule is bound to generate stories that turn into legends ... and some of them may even be true. For example, Thule was an all-male base in the 1950s, but a local saying claimed there was a woman behind every tree -- obviously a stretch because Thule was located hundreds of miles north of the nearest tree line. According to the story, that didn't stop a B-36 crew with a great sense of humor who somehow fitted a pine tree into the bomb-bay of their airplane, flew to Thule and "planted" it in the middle of the company street.

Sunset at Thule, midnight, Sep. 1, 1958

Even though our Reflex deployment took place in the "soft" weather of a Greenland summer, all of us were anxious to get back to Tampa's palm trees and warm weather. We departed Thule at midnight on the first of September and as we took the runway, I snapped a picture just as the sun went below the western horizon before climbing back into the sky ... for "permanent party" and those who replaced us it would be all downhill sunshine-wise for the next three months. When we got home the workload was unusually light, providing an opportunity for me to get acquainted with civilian, single-engine airplanes at the SAC Aero Club, based on a well-maintained grass strip at the very tip of the peninsula on which MacDill was located. Many Air Force bases supported aero clubs to provide recreational flying and flight instruction for base personnel at very reasonable rental rates. The MacDill club had a fleet of nine airplanes, including a T-34, a former Air Force primary flight training vehicle; it was actually a v-tail Bonanza with tandem seating, and a conventional empennage.

MacDill Aero Club's Beechcraft T-34

The T-34 was the fastest animal in the club's stable and I rented it for a trip to Chicago for a job interview. (I had decided to leave active duty in February 1959.) The T-34 was reasonably comfortable despite the cold weather on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I managed to communicate with Flight Service Stations along the way with only a four-channel VHF radio. The trip went without a hitch until the final landing on the MacDill Aero Club strip: When the main landing gear touched the ground, the right wing dropped; I couldn't prevent it and the airplane slewed to the right and came to a stop. The right main gear had collapsed due to a structural failure in the retraction system but there was no major damage thanks to the smooth runway. The mechanics raised the right wing and replaced the broken part ... as far as I know that airplane may still be flying. Thank you, grass. My final flight in the KC-97 took place on Feb. 12, 1959; 10 days later I completed out-processing, packed up the family and headed north as a full-fledged civilian. [Continued with Chapter 12.]

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More articles, stories and fiction about the joy of aviation are found in AVweb's Skywritings section.

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