19 March 2016

KC-135: More than Just a Tanker

Arc Light

I never looked forward to refueling B-52s in Southeast Asia -- Arc Light was the mission name.  The B-52s ultimately flew from both Guam and U-Tapao, Thailand, but the mission flown from Guam always needed refueling.  Arc Light sorties were an exercise in minimal radio conversation and some radio silent navigation that brought a flight of three tankers onto a refueling track with three B-52s two or three miles behind them at the rendezvous point.  It worked pretty well when the weather and visibility were good.  When the typhoons and tropical storm season began it became a pretty dicey operation.

The first time I deployed with the 28th Bomb Wing, we arrived in theater in March and left in September; our main operating base was Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.  That timing put us in the typhoon season for most of the deployment -- and the summer of 1966 turned out to be a very active typhoon season.  It seemed like every week or so we would be playing dodge the typhoon with an evacuation to either Guam or Clark Air Base, Philippines.  There were two air refueling tracks over the Philippines:  The North Track started at the northern tip of Luzon and headed southwest and the South Track ran pretty much westerly about 50 miles south of Manila, over central Luzon.  The weather could be bad on both tracks and it became a matter of picking the least worst weather to refuel in.  When the weather was bad, air refueling was a real challenge for both bombers and tankers.

I recall one Arc Light refueling that was our first experience with diverting an entire air refueling formation while in-flight back to Kadena.  We were the last three-ship cell of a thirty aircraft formation planned to refuel on the North Track.  There was a tropical storm/typhoon brewing between

us and the North Track; we had to pick out way through the heart of that storm to get to the North Track (which turned out to be pretty much in the clear).  Air refueling went well and we, the last cell in the formation stream, turned back for Kadena.  I was not looking forward to having to pick the way back through that typhoon to get back to Kadena.  Just north of Luzon, as we were about to once again punch into that storm, the lead cell in the stream called all aircraft and directed that we divert to Clark Air Base, Philippines.  

No one had ever done that before.  So, ten three-ship cells each did an about face and headed south for Clark.  Since we were last heading for Kadena we suddenly became the lead cell heading for Clark -- and there were twenty-seven KC-135s behind us in a worse fuel state than we were in.  I don't know if anyone warned Clark that we were coming, but Clark Approach Control learned in the doing that they had thirty big aircraft coming to land at their patch.  We pretty well saturated their capability.  We, the first to arrive at Clark, got on the ground in good time and got the hell out of the way.  The aircraft behind us started stacking up as Clark Approach Control was trying to deal with the followers and keep them separated.  One of the later cells was approaching Clark, low on fuel, and still at something like 14,000 feet altitude.  Clark Approach cleared them to land, if they were able.  The lead pilot said, "Watch me," and initiated an emergency descent:  throttles to idle, speed brakes full up, gear down, and flaps coming down.  He landed out of an emergency descent; first time that had been done as far as anyone knows.

Our diversion also saturated the base housing space; we were bussed off base to hotels, bedded down, and did another Oh-Dark-Thirty launch the next morning to refuel the next formation of B-52s headed for Vietnam.

That was a period of learning by doing.  Arc Light had been in operation for about a year, and the previous summer season had not been a busy typhoon season.  A lot of what we were doing was making it up on the fly.  Literally.

Young Tiger

The Young Tiger operation, which involved KC-135s air refueling fighters  striking mainly in North Vietnam, had been in operation longer than Arc Light and did not, usually, involve massed formations all headed for the same place.  At least not until the summer of 1966.  Operations were not trouble free since our forces were constantly coming up with ways to smooth out the existing procedures and Washington DC kept getting into the act telling the operations level (us) how to fight the war.  Classic micromanagement.  And then there was the political angle.  Everyone who was involved in flying operations in Southeast Asia (it never was just about Vietnam) received, essentially, two briefings.  There was the SECRET briefing that covered operations in Vietnam.  And then there was the TOP SECRET briefing that covered operations in Laos.  Listening to the two briefings made one thing immediately clear:  The American government did not want its citizens knowing that we were fighting a war in Laos.  Politics, again.  The people on the ground who were being hit by our strikes certainly knew who was doing it.  Their backers, i.e., the USSR and the PRC, knew what was going on.  The forces who we were allied with knew who we were hitting.  But since there was the issue of political cover at work.  We had to treat operations in Laos as if they didn't exist.  Recommended reading on this issue includes, When Thunder Rolled, by Ed Rasimus; Thud Ridge, by Jacksel Broughton; and The Ravens: The Men Who Flew in America's Secret War in Laos by Christopher Robbins.

As far as tanker forces were concerned, the only real bit of political constraint was that we were not to fly inside a 30 nautical mile circle around Vientiane, Laos.  Sometimes that happened anyway when weather forced us there.  Fighter air refuelings were usually short and sweet:  GCI would join a flight of four F-105s, usually, with a tanker orbiting in one of the "Anchors" (see map, below).  The tanker would give each fighter a preplanned amount of fuel, plus a top off.  The tanker would position the fighters at a drop off point, if requested.  The tanker would then wait for the next flight of four to be refueled.  When the time on station expired, or fuel state reached BINGO, the tanker was cleared to some planned recovery base, either Don Muang, near Bangkok; Takhli, northwest of Bangkok; Clark Air Base, Philippines; Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.

And then someone decided that there needed to be more firepower focused on the various pieces of critical infrastructure in and around both Hanoi and Haiphong.  The first few times the strike force consisted of three or four four-ship formations of F-105s and some escorting F-4Cs to help keep the MiGs at bay while the -105s conducted their bomb runs.  Then the strike packages got bigger and more elaborate.  The Wild Weasels were introduced for the first time: F-100Fs.  And the number of strike flights grew such that three tankers each on parallel Anchors would refuel them, stacked up at fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen thousand feet altitude.  Two additional tankers each on the same parallel Anchors would refuel F-4C escorts at twenty-five thousand feet altitude.  The entire strike package, especially the F-105s, wanted to be dropped off as far north in Laos as possible, and all within sight of each other.  That took some navigation skill to bring off successfully.

And then the action would start.  We would be holding in the assigned Anchors and the flights of fighters would start checking in with GCI to be joined with their assigned tanker.  Suddenly, GCI is vectoring ten flights of fighters for their tankers; there are fifty aircraft in a relatively small space all zooming this way and that trying to get a visual on everyone else in the vicinity.  It looked like a swarm of bees and a really clear day.  Then, just as quickly as it started, all the fighter flights called TALLY-HO (tankers in sight), and things got down to the business of refueling and getting everyone to the drop off point at the same time and going in the same direction.


It was late afternoon, one summer day in Thailand.  We had just been relieved from Red Anchor and cleared RTB to Don Muang Airport; we were heading southwest at the time.  We climbed to twenty-five thousand feet to stay out of the traffic that was coming out to the Anchors to conduct air refueling.  We were in the clouds and nearing Korat when Brigham Control, at Udorn, Thailand, called us and warned of aircraft at our ten o'clock and heading westbound.  Since we were in the clouds I adjusted my radar scope to give me the first ten miles around the tanker and immediately had a radar return that looked like a flight of four F-105s.  I notified the pilot and watched and the range decreased; the other aircraft were going to pass in front of us, but it would be close.  They crossed in front of us with two or three miles to spare.  Then there was a huge thump as the aircraft hit the turbulent wake of the flight that had just passed in front of us.  I thought we had been hit by someone I hadn't seen.  Then we broke out of the clouds to see two KC-135s flying wing formation -- and at our altitude -- heading for Takhli.  They never knew how close we had come to turning three tankers into scrap metal.

Staff Pilots

Since I was on a Stan/Eval crew for some of my tanker tenure, we got our share of staff pilots who were going out for proficiency -- and combat pay when we flew in Southeast Asia.  I especially recall a brigadier general and a colonel.  The general flew strictly by the book and firmly ran the entire mission from beginning to end.  The colonel tried to do the same thing, but weather made things difficult.

We were fragged for Yellow Anchor, clear over in South Vietnam, between Danang and  Pleiku.  Mostly, we got F-100 Misty FACs who were working southern North Vietnam, and Cambodia, but nobody talked much about Cambodia back then.

Yellow Anchor was almost a guaranteed boring mission, and this one was no exception.  The FACs came and went, and finally, we reached BINGO and were cleared to Return to Base (RTB.)  I turned us for home (U-Tapao), and at that moment we got our first look at the weather that had been brewing, unnoticed, for the past hour or more while we had been hanging in Yellow Anchor.  

I may have seen worse thunderstorms in Southeast Asia, but off hand, I don't remember where.  As soon as we got on a course westbound, the colonel asked me how far out the weather was.  I did a quick look with the search radar and told him about 70 miles.  When we closed in to about 50 miles, I began taking a closer look to find some soft spots in that mess out ahead of us.  There were some weak areas where the earlier storms were mostly dissipated, so I gave the colonel a heading for, on radar at least, a clear area.  Unfortunately, the colonel's view of the situation said that we were headed directly for a big pile of white cloud, i.e., the dead thunderstorm.  The colonel said he saw some "blue" off in another direction and was going to turn for that.  I checked the radar; the colonel had us heading for a big solid thunderstorm about 50 miles out.  After a few minutes flying toward the raging monster, the "blue" turned to more of an angry purple, and the colonel told me he would take my headings again.  I had been studying the radar scope seriously by now, because as far as the radar could see, there were lots of thunderstorms – big ones.

Again, I directed the colonel toward a weak spot amongst all those giant storms.  Again, the colonel's view said that I was directing him toward a big white cloud; he didn't like that.  Again, the colonel saw a patch of "blue" and proceeded toward it, only to have the color of purple replace the "blue" after a minute or two.  This seesaw between going his own way and then asking for vectors went on for another few minutes until we were swallowed up in the clouds and the colonel no longer could see what was out there.

We zigged and zagged all the way across Laos and most of Thailand.  As we neared Korat, a line of really big thunderstorms completely cut off our approach to U-Tapao.  I told the colonel so.  With that, we started to climb.  Finally, at 40K, or so, we slipped through a saddle between some of the real biggies and made our way to U-Tapao.  

I informed the colonel that we had cleared the tops in the saddle, I heard him mutter, "I hope so."

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