by Phil Rowe
Aerial refueling had come a long way since the days of manually handed down hoses and gravity flow from plane to plane. In the late l950's the KC-97 Boeing-built Stratocruiser was pretty darn good. It supported the SAC fleet of B-47's and others very effectively, though a faster, higher flying model was needed. And along came the KC-135, the tanker version of the Boeing 707. That ushered in a whole new era of aerial refueling.
Our B-58's were brand new in the early l960's and like the B-47's and B-52's also depended operationally for support from the flying gas stations. By the time we were in need of the KC-135, it was equipped with the high speed boom which allowed use to maintain over 300 knots airspeed during refueling.
I remember our first experiences bringing that delta-winged Hustler up behind the KC-135 for a load of fuel. In operations like ours or that of other aircraft, aerial refueling behind a fully loaded tanker posed problems for both tanker and receiver. For the heavy tanker to support receivers at the usual altitudes of around 25,000 feet, the tanker would be a bit slow and sluggish while the receivers would be light and highly maneuverable. After refueling the loaded receiver would be sluggish and the tanker lighter and more maneuverable.
In fact, for the B-58 to be able to take on a full fuel load of fuel at 25,000 feet and 300 knots, it was usually necessary for us to use the added thrust of one afterburner. The pilot would usually light the #2 afterburner (inboard engine on the left side) while compensating for the induced yaw with throttle adjustments on the other engines.
The first time we refueled at night behind a KC-135 the weather was clear above us, but we were just slightly above a solid undercast of stratus clouds. We visually acquired our tanker normally after a radar rendezvous procedure. We closed to about a quarter of a mile behind the big Boeing bird and stabilized our speed to remain in trail just slightly below. After completing our Before Refueling checklist we slowly moved in for contact. The receptacle, located just forward of the pilot's windshield, was open and ready to receive the flying boom of the tanker under the steady guidance of the boom operator.
CONTACT ! We were receiving fuel at over 3000 pounds a minute. And we were getting heavier with every pound received. So in the usual fashion, my pilot brought the #2 throttle to the minimum afterburner position. The engine responded to the extra fuel dumped into the tail portion of the engine by igniting it and causing a long plume of flame to trail from the exhaust end.
The flame was nearly as long as our B-58 and it looked even bigger with the reflection of the light off the clouds just below us. The startled Boom Operator on the tanker was not accustomed to seeing receivers trail flame and quickly called for an immediate disconnect by saying 'BREAK-AWAY, BREAK-AWAY, BREAK- AWAY' over his radio. But before the disconnect could occur and the tanker pilot accelerated away from us, my pilot called back to say that it's okay.
That was the last time any B-58 refueled at night without advising the tanker crew that we would be lighting an afterburner as we got heavier. We should have thought of the problem we posed to Boom Operators, but with all of the other things going on it never occurred to the bomber crews.
Procedures were soon changed to include warning the Boom Operators of what to expect.