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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Sandy McMurray, a Boeing test pilot, shouted into Schleier’s office that he was leaving.
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.
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.
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.
We climbed a short, steel ladder through a hatch and onto the flight deck of the KC-135.
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.
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Ready for contact,” Probst replied.
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.
“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.
“To your right eight … forward thirty … to your right five. …”
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.
“To your left three,” Probst droned, “forward two.”
“Contact!” Probst said.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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