New Muscle for the Long Arm of SAC

July 1, 1957

By year’s end, the Strategic Air Command’s timetables for instant retaliation at the far ends of the earth will undergo sweeping revision. The list of targets SAC can reach, if the need arises, will be lengthened and the time needed to reach them will be considerably decreased.

“We’ll soon be capable,” says a high-ranking SAC officer, “of reaching and destroying, with incredible speed, every important military target in the Soviet sphere of influence.”

The source of this tremendously increased striking power is an adjunct of the Free World’s Number One weapon system—SAC’s B-52, the long-range, eight-jet, 650-mph bomber which last January streaked around the globe in forty-five hours and nineteen minutes. The new addition is the KC-135 Stratotanker, a sleek, jet-powered giant of an airplane which can rendezvous with and refuel the B-52 without causing the big bomber to deviate from its assigned course, speed, or altitude.

“If we had had the KC-135 last January,” a pilot at SAC headquarters told me, “we could have cut four to six hours off that global flight.”

Mid-air refueling from propeller-driven B-29s and KC-97 tankers has long been routine. But it is a tricky, hair-raising operation to hang a 200-ton bomber on the end of a boom fifteen yards long, then hold it in precisely the right position for eighteen to twenty-five minutes, while thousands upon thousands of gallons of highly volatile jet fuel are pumped into it from another airplane. It is a job that needs the utmost confidence, the most exacting flying skill, for it is usually done in strict radio silence, and disastrous collision is never more than a deep breath away.

I got permission from the Air Force to become the first outside civilian ever to fly in the KC-135 and went to Seattle, Wash., where the first of the new jet tankers were coming off the assembly lines at the Boeing Airplane Company.

“Until now, our B-52s and B-47s have had to come down 20,000 to 30,000 feet to rendezvous with the tanker,” explained Maj. Erich Schleier, chief of Air Force test operations at Boeing. “Even at its ceiling, the KC-97 could not always get above bad weather, and the bomber would spend a lot of time hunting around for the tanker between cloud layers. After they found each other and hooked up, in the case of the B-47 they often had to dive and keep diving to pick up speed because even when the KC-97 was at full throttle, the bomber was on the ragged edge of a stall. Sometimes, when things got too rough, they had to break contact and start over. Or, worse yet, the mission had to be aborted. It took a lot of time and it was costly.”

The KC-135, Schleier pointed out, flies far above bad weather, meets the bomber at its own speed and altitude levels, expedites delivery of SAC’s volcanic bomb load.

I signed a waiver absolving the government of all responsibility in case of accident. A sergeant found me a flying suit, then tied a Mae West around me. Finally, I pulled the harness of a lead-heavy parachute over my shoulders.

“Try to get out of the ‘chute just as you hit the water,” the sergeant said, “or it will drag you down. Don’t try to inflate the Mae West until you are clear of the ‘chute and in the water. Good luck and don’t worry,” he smiled. “The ocean’s warm this time of year.”

Sandy McMurray, a Boeing test pilot, shouted into Schleier’s office that he was leaving.

“Sandy is flying the B-52 you will rendezvous with,” Schleier said. “This is the first time it has ever been off the ground.” My nerves began to crawl inside me.

Ed Hartz, Boeing’s Chief Project Pilot for the third production model KC-135—the third one built—met me at the flight line. The KC-135 looked impatient on the ground, eager to get moving. The bullet-shaped fuselage, 128 feet long, seemed to lean forward—an impression created by the wings, which came out of the center of the fuselage near the belly and swept back at a thirty-five-degree angle on each side. The tips of the wings, 130 feet apart, had a slight melancholy droop. But the wings would straighten out during take-off, and their flexibility would act as shock absorbers against the “bumps” in the sky.

Below and just ahead of the forward edge of each wing hung two streamlined pods, each with a large, round mouth. Each encased a Pratt & Whitney J-57 turbojet engine. When the turbines in those four engines started spinning, great quantities of air would be sucked through the mouths of the pods and mixed with JP-4 jet fuel. The pressures that built up would develop a thrust of 10,000 pounds from each engine.

Two “tracks” of black metal, three and one-half feet apart, ran eighteen feet along the underside of the fuselage. This, Ed Hartz explained, was the director panel for the pilot of the plane receiving fuel. Each track had four message lights: up, down, forward, aft.

There are also five sets of progress lights, which enable the receiver pilot to fly his plane precisely between the director panels. When the receiver pilot can see both green lights, he knows he is in perfect refueling position. If he can see amber, he knows he is getting too low or too high, or too far aft or too far forward.

Beyond the amber lights at both ends of both tracks are red lights—for Danger. These warn the receiver pilot that if he does not correct his position immediately, contact will be broken. The “brains” of the refueling boom system—tiny automatic switches in the boom itself—will know that the limits of refueling safety have been violated. The switches will fire an electrical signal up the boom into an amplifier, and the boom will be instantly retracted.

“It is up to the receiver pilot,” Hartz explained, “to keep his fuselage centered between the tracks. If he drifts more than fifteen degrees to the right or left, contact will be broken. It’s the toughest kind of flying for bomber pilots, for they aren’t used to holding such tight formation.”

We climbed a short, steel ladder through a hatch and onto the flight deck of the KC-135.

“The instrument panel is less than half as complicated as the panel on a KC-97,” copilot Tom Layne pointed out, “for these are hardly any moving parts in a jet engine to worry about.”

Ed Hartz pointed to four switches and a single valve switch on the instrument panel. “Those four switches,” he said, “start moving the fuel from our body tanks to the boom before contact is made. The valve switch controls the valve which pressures fuel through the boom into the receiver plane when connection is established.” He motioned me into a seat directly behind his own. I strapped the safety belt around me, pulled on a heavy white crash helmet. An oxygen mask, attached to the helmet, gripped my chin and the bridge of my nose. It was like being locked up in a closet.

Hartz had the engines fired up and suddenly we were moving to the end of a 10,000-foot runway. He opened his throttles, revving up his engines. It sounded like a nearby waterfall. I could feel a tight envelope of tremendous power building around us. The big jet was poised, ready to go.

Now, Hartz’s voice drawled in my earphones: “Boeing Tower this is Air Force jet one-one-two-oh. Request permission for immediate take-off.” (The word jet wins take-off priority, for jet missions are delicately timed and jets burn expensive fuel in a hurry on the ground.)

“Jet one-one-two-oh cleared for take-off,” the tower answered.

Hartz let go of his brakes and we were rolling, booming down the runway in front of twenty screaming tons of jet thrust. We straddled a yellow line in the middle of the runway for what seemed a long time. Then Hartz eased back on his control column and the earth fell away from us. It seemed as though a giant magnet were towing us into the sky. In six minutes we were at 30,000 feet, over Puget Sound.

I went back through the cavernous interior of the KC-135 with Hank Probst, Boeing’s top boom operator. A few feet forward of the tail we climbed down through a hatch and stretched out on our stomachs on soft, leather-padded pallets. Our chins lay on sponge rubber rests, and we faced a window about four feet square. Probst handled some controls, and a portion of the fuselage beyond the window opened and slid upward into the upper half of the fuselage. Now, we had a clear view of the world.

“Depth perception and voice clarity are the main prerequisites for handling the boom,” Probst said. “You must be able to tell exactly how far away the receiver plane is, because you are handling a steel boom that telescopes outward like a pile driver. If you can hit him too hard with it you can damage the boom or the receiver receptacle. You’ve got to lay it in there gently.

“You’ve got to speak clearly so everyone will understand you the first time you say something,” he continued. “You might not get a second chance to get a message across.”

Fastening himself into shoulder harness and stirrups, Probst released the boom. It fell out behind us, a big, steel tail. Two small, black steel “wings” came out of a bulge in the end of the boom. These were the ruddervators, so called because they act as rudders and elevators in guiding the boom into the receptacle atop the fuselage of the receiver plane. Gripping the handle of the control stick below the right side of his pallet, Probst moved it up, and the boom rose until it was flying straight out behind us. He pushed down, and the boom went down. It moved, right and left, responding to his signals.

His left hand gripped another stick, below the left side of the pallet. He pushed this control stick forward, and the boom began telescoping out. Then he squeezed the trigger, and it shot back in.

Probst rolled off his pallet and motioned me to climb on. I slipped into the shoulder harness and stirrups and began gyrating the boom, firing the telescope out, pulling it back in. the controls were feather-sensitive. This was not a job for heavy hands or slow reflexes. Impressed, I resumed my role of spectator.

On an electronic panel below the front edge of the pallet a blue light gleamed, indicating that we were ready to make refueling contact with the receiver plane. On one side of the blue light was a green light which would come on when the boom was in the receiver plane’s receptacle. On the other side of the blue light, an amber light would flash on when contact was broken.

There were three dial faces on the panel. One showed the boom operator exactly where the receiver plane was within the fifteen-degree limits on either side of dead center. The second showed how far out the boom had telescoped, the third showed the elevation of the boom.

Besides actually “flying” the boom into the receiver plane, the boom operator must keep a sharp eye on this panel. He must always know exactly where the receiver plane is within the refueling envelope. If it gets too close, or too far away, or if any emergency develops, he must know exactly what the emergency is and always be ready to instantly hit his automatic disconnect switch.

Now we were at 33,000 feet, over the Pacific west of Portland, Ore. Our speed was close to 600 miles an hour. Until now, refueling has always been done at about 250 miles an hour.

Ed Hartz informed Probst that the receiver plane was coming into position.

“Ready for contact,” Probst replied.

“Receiver plane ready,” Sandy McMurray said from somewhere.

Then I saw it. The huge B-52 dropped into sight behind our tail assembly. It was a frightening sight. Its wings swept back out of the top of the fuselage and spread out to a total width of 185 feet. The tail assembly was four stories high. The four double-sized jet pods, slung under the wings, made the plane look like a giant, evil bug.

It moved up behind us, closer, closer. …

“Forward fifty,” Probst said calmly. He was telling McMurray to jock in another fifty feet around us. I have twenty-twenty vision. I thought we were certain to collide. But McMurray bore in on us, supremely confident in Probst’s instructions.

“Forward forty,” Probst continued.

“To your right eight … forward thirty … to your right five. …”

Probst was working his control sticks now, and the end of the boom sticks through the sky toward a shallow, V-shaped alley atop the fuselage of the B-52, directly over the flight deck.

Ed Hartz had to muscle the controls of the KC-135 because the nose of the enormous bomber below us created a wave of air that made our tail assembly want to lift. McMurray faced the same problem in reverse. He caught a downwash from the tanker and had to fight a tendency to nose over.

“Forward fifteen,” Probst said. The telescope moved out of the boom, slowly, seemed to strain for the V-shaped alley. The giant bomber came in closer, seemed certain to crash into our mid-section.

“To your left three,” Probst droned, “forward two.”

The telescope of the boom was touching the front end of the alley now, wiggling slightly against the air rushing past it. Probst pushed forward on his telescope stick, and the end of the boom struck at the receptacle like a steel snake.

“Contact!” Probst said.

The receptacle mechanism fixed a steel grip on the end of the boom. It would not let go until the receiver pilot or the boom operator hit his disconnect switch.

It takes less than half an hour to completely replenish a B-52, but these were the longest minutes I ever lived. I could see Sandy McMurray’s face plainly. He was not more than twelve yards from me. I watched his eyes move across the pilot-director panel on the belly of the tanker. He was much too close for comfort.

Rarely did the B-52 waver from dead center, and before it was inches away McMurray was bringing it back. Probst’s face was lined with concentration, and his hands stayed constantly on the controls, sensing each slight movement of his mammoth airplanes. One instant his eyes were glued on the panel beneath him, where three needles hovered near the centers of the three dial faces. The next instant he was staring hard at the bomber behind him.

Suddenly, the B-52 started sliding beneath us. The boom moved straight down. The tail of the B-52 headed for our window like an office building on wheels! McMurray had picked up nearly twenty feet on us. Disaster seemed imminent.

“Back twenty,” Probst said evenly. The bomber started to fall back in position. “Back fifteen,” Probst said. “Back ten.” Soon the bomber was again in perfect position.

It was beautiful, nerveless flying. If either Hartz or McMurray had become distracted for a single split second … but no one seemed to think of that but me.

“Receiver ready for disconnect,” McMurray said finally.

“Tanker ready for disconnect,” Probst answered. He hit his disconnect switch. A loud, metallic jolt shuddered through our compartment as the telescope jumped out of the receptacle and rammed up into the boom.

Probst wrestled with his hydraulic controls and soon had the boom stowed in the lower half of the fuselage again. The B-52 turned off behind us and drifted high out of sight. Minutes later, Ed Hartz set us down gently on the Boeing Field.

It had all been strictly routine. Every three and one-half minutes somewhere in the world, a SAC bomber is refueled. And, with jet-to-jet refueling now a reality, new lightning-quick muscle has been added to the Free World’s biggest Sunday Punch—the Strategic Air Command.

Mr. Hubbell is a staff writer and associate editor of Flight Lines Magazine, published by the Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. Born in New York City, he’s a graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he majored in journalism. He served in the US Navy during and after World War II. An active freelance writer, his byline has appeared in Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post. His last article for Air Force was in February 1956.