Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 9: Strategic Air Command, Part 1


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

We arrived in Tampa, Fla., home of MacDill Air Force Base, with the expectation that our household goods would follow soon thereafter, but we were not prepared for the several weeks we had to live with what we were able to carry with us from Oklahoma. Our “portable inventory” consisted of an ironing board, a TV set and as much clothing and other necessities as we could stuff into our little station wagon. We arranged a lease on a small, two-bedroom house about eight miles from the base and after a week or two without any furniture to speak of, the neighbors took pity on us and provided a card table and a couple of chairs … a big improvement over the ironing board. Wife Nancy was very pregnant by this time, so we rented a bed to ease her discomfort. Lesson learned: When accomplishing a permanent change of station, never trust a moving company’s estimate of a delivery date for your household goods.

At that time, MacDill AFB hosted two complete bomb wings (305th and 306th), each comprised of several bomber squadrons equipped with B-47s and an aerial-refueling squadron flying KC-97 tankers. I was assigned initially to the 305th Wing air-refueling squadron; shortly after signing in, I asked to be transferred to one of the bomber squadrons with the hope of acquiring some heavy-jet time in the next three years. My request held up for only a few days, whereupon I was re-assigned to the 306th refueling squadron. I never did find out what prompted the sudden relocation but it was likely due to the inescapable fact that brand-new, recently-arrived, 2nd lieutenants always occupy the bottom rung on the ladder of squadron privileges.When I reported, the CO of the 306th offered a warm welcome to the squadron, but laid down the law on two things I’ll never forget: First, a bounced personal check was very near the top of the list of officer no-no’s; and second, an offense of any kind committed “in town” (even something as innocuous as a parking ticket) would result in equal or worse punishment inside the gate … somewhat like the double jeopardy when you got into trouble at school and had to pay for your misdeeds again when you got home. Welcome to SAC and General Curtis LeMay’s no-nonsense rules.Tampa’s relationship with the military goes back to 1898 and the Spanish-American War. The city’s strategic location made it the logical choice for a rendezvous point for troops heading south to help Cuba gain independence from Spain. Approximately 10,000 troops (including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders) — waiting for ships headed to Cuba — set up camp in Port Tampa City, a village on the western shore of the peninsula.

MacDill AFB occupies the southern portion of the Interbay Peninsula that runs due south from downtown Tampa, with Hillsborough Bay on the east and Tampa Bay on the west. This parcel of palmetto-covered land that lay barely 10 feet or so above sea level was apparently considered worthless in 1939, when it was donated to the U.S. War Department by the state of Florida and Hillsborough County.Originally established as “Southeast Air Base, Tampa” (how generic can an airfield name be?), the facility was later named in honor of Col. Leslie MacDill, a WWI aviator. Construction began shortly thereafter and the airfield was dedicated in April 1941, just in time for the Army Air Forces to start ramping up training for WWII. The location and layout were ideal for flight operations, with open water east, west and south of the field and virtually no obstacles to the north.

(Read more about MacDill and its B-26 Marauders in the sidebar at right.)When I joined the 306th Air Refueling Squadron in the spring of 1956, the concept of inflight refueling had been around for nearly four decades thanks to Russian aviator Alexander de Seversky, who had proposed such a procedure in 1917. Four years later, a California wingwalker strapped a can of gasoline to his back, climbed out of a Lincoln Standard and onto a Curtiss Jenny, and proceeded to pour the fuel into the Jenny’s gas tank … that was aerial refueling by definition, but it was more stunt than anything else.

A more practical demonstration of this procedure took place in 1923 when the crews of a pair of DeHavilland DH-4s proved that, given a strong hose, the force of gravity and some good formation flying, fuel could be transferred successfully from one airplane to another in flight.

This was a bare-bones application of the probe-and-drogue method that was applied to a number of modified B-29s in the post-WWII years, when extending the range of the recip-powered bomber fleet was of critical importance.

The next step in the progression toward larger, faster and more efficient tanker airplanes involved the Boeing B-50 Superfortress. As these airplanes were released from their assignments as bombers, a number of them were modified for use as tankers; the KB-50 still employed the probe-and-drogue system, but was capable of simultaneously refueling three fighters.Three major developments in the early 1950s enabled SAC to take a giant step toward fulfilling its stated mission of providing long-range bombing capability: The first was the initial delivery of Boeing B-47s to the 306th Bomb Wing at MacDill AFB; the second was the near-concurrent delivery of the first Boeing KC-97 tankers to the 306th Air Refueling Squadron, also located at MacDill; and the third development was the flying boom. This combination of aircraft — with tankers at strategic locations — held the Russian bear at arm’s-length by permitting SAC to maintain a nuclear-armed bomber force in the air 24/7 with enough fuel to reach their targets in the Soviet Union.

The flying boom — a rigid, telescoping, fuel-delivery line, maneuvered into position by a boom operator in the tail of the tanker — was an integral part of a refueling pod installed in place of the rear cargo doors of the C-97 cargo aircraft; a receptacle in the receiver airplane locked the fuel nozzle in place during refueling.

My introduction to the KC-97 consisted of a considerable amount of classroom training in aircraft systems and procedures, a lot of sitting-in-the-airplane familiarization and three flights; the first lasted a bit more than four hours (all of it after dark), the second went on for nine hours (half of it at night) and the third was four and a half hours. This was a portent of things to come: A typical refueling mission averaged four to five hours and about half of the flights took place after the sun went down … SAC flew a lot at night. There was the occasional local flight set aside for transition training and currency.Shortly after my three “dollar rides,” I was sent to West Palm Beach AFB (long since deactivated) to attend the C-97 simulator program operated by the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). At that time, the term “simulator” was rather loosely interpreted as any sort of device that was capable of providing instrument indications and control responses to help aircrews familiarize themselves with a particular aircraft’s flight characteristics; today, the MATS simulator at West Palm Beach — with no motion and no visuals, just frosted cockpit windows to simulate flying in clouds — would probably be classified as a “training device.” I remember a couple of airmen standing outside the sim, one shaking a sheet of metal to simulate thunder, the other producing simulated lightning by flashing a bright light on and off. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this was state-of-the-simulator-art in 1956 and provided valuable training with zero hazard and much less expense than actual flight. The C-97 (cargo version) was nearly identical to the tanker in almost all respects, so we were able to acquire a good understanding of airplane systems and procedures.The Palm Beach simulator program was very busy, operating nearly 24 hours a day, which meant students would inevitably be scheduled for early morning classes. On one such occasion I showed up at 5 a.m. for the first sim session of the day, settled myself in the left seat, started all four engines and prepared for takeoff. The engine-noise generators did their thing, the airspeed indicators came to life and at the proper speed my mate in the right seat called out “rotate.” I applied a bit of back pressure on the yoke, at which point red lights came on all over the instrument panel, all four engines quit and everything died. The instructor reset the sim for takeoff and said, “Let’s try that again,” whereupon we got the same result when I tried to raise the nose. Totally confused, I quickly reviewed the takeoff procedure but couldn’t find anything out of order. Now the instructor made his point: “Lieutenant, I don’t know what else I can do to wake you up; take a look at your attitude indicator.”Something did indeed look different; under the wings of the airplane symbol on the attitude indicator were two little projections intended to represent the landing gear; but instead of being under the wings they were on top. I don’t know if my instructor set me up or if the previous instructor had rolled the sim inverted and put it to bed upside down; either way, it proved that clever instructors could do amazing things with the simulator, that one should pay more attention to the flight instruments (especially at 5 o’clock in the morning) and that applying normal flight control pressures to an inverted airplane was not a good way to get off the ground. I still wonder what would have happened if I had realized what was going on and pushed forward on the yoke.[Continued with Chapter 10.]

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