The Cold War
In 1957 I was a young Air Force staff sergeant, flight engineer, flying the propeller-driven KC-97G air-refueling tanker out of Lockbourne (now Rickenbacker) Air Force Base.
The USAF began operating the KC-97 in 1950. It purchased a total of 816 tankers from Boeing.The KC-97 used piston engines, fueled by aviation gasoline, but it carried jet fuel for its refueling mission. It therefore used independent (transfer valves) systems for both types of fuel, and was able to transfer its avgas 145 to off-load to the receiver in an emergency. (known as a SAVE) These tankers were vitally important to the world-wide B-47 Stratojet strategic operations. An example was the support of Arctic reconnaissance flights from Thule Air Base.
The Really Cold, Cold War
I had had been playing inter-service, inter-base football that fall in addition to with my flying duties. In November my squadron was tasked by the Strategic Air Command to deploy to Greenland to provide air-refueling support for the air reconnaissance mission, keeping an eye on Russia’s Arctic activities.
Thule Air Force Base Greenland as described by a former veteran of the base: “March was our windiest month. However, we had to be cautious all year long because the wind could come down off of the ice cap at anytime and in minutes be blowing dangerously hard. I only saw it blowing up to 100 mph once during the year I was there. That only lasted a few hours, but the wind-chill factor was -110 Fahrenheit. Everyone just stayed wherever they were whenever something like that happened.”
Flying in the Arctic is totally different from operating in more comfortable climes. We had to heat the aircraft and engines for two hours prior to starting the engines for a flight that would last up to eight hours.
On the first mission, I was amazed when the navigator, after about two hours flying time, stated over inter-phone, “Abeam the North Pole.” We, along with the four other ships in our formation, flew on for two more hours before contacting our receivers, two jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft.
After offloading fuel, we turned and headed back to Thule with just enough fuel to make it home. If the runway was closed for any reason, such as a crashed aircraft, the alternate landing field was on the sea ice that in winter could easily support the plane.
One mission stands out in my memory for its moment of terror. To complete the long refueling missions over the Pole, we had to carry aviation fuel in the air-refueling tanks in place of the jet fuel normally carried.
The jet-powered bomber receivers could operate on aviation fuel with a slight loss of range. To use this fuel source, the tanker’s engines had to be isolated from the pressure pumps that normally furnished fuel. The gravity feed from the refueling tanks was a tenuous operation, with flickering fuel-pressure warning lights the norm.
Arctic navigation in those pre-INS/GPS days relied on celestial navigation because magnetic compass systems were near useless that close to true North.
When the crew navigator needed to take a sextant shot, the refueling panel with the fuel valve-control switches had to be swung back. I warned the navigator to be extra careful to not touch the switches, He misunderstood me and said “These switches?” and promptly closed the fuel-source valves.
Dead silence! All four engines quit and the aircraft’s nose tipped down into the perpetually dark winter Arctic night. The boom operator standing behind me shouted, “Get it, Paul, get it!” The pilot tuned wide-eyed in my direction with a question mark over his head, or so it seemed. I tuned the fuel-source switches to the pressure mode, and all four engines backfired and roared back to life.
Perpetual Arctic Winter Sky
The entire event took only a few seconds but at the time it seemed to take minutes. We completed the mission and the only reminder of the event was my twisted and torn seat-cushion cover.
On the ice cap near the base was a reminder of the dangers of the mission. An RB-47 recon plane was scrapped due to being hit several times by Russian MIG cannon fire.
After our hundred-day deployment was completed and our replacement squadron was in place, the unit headed home to the mild Ohio winter.
I was thankful that I had the experience of operating in a harsh environment, but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis.
Note: The KC-97 and me eventually ended up at Clinton County Air Force Base in1962 and we worked for the Ohio Air National Guard until 1974.