Phantom Phueling (part 6)

Posted on 18. Apr, 2007 by in Featured

We where tight on fuel! We had 5 minutes to get some more otherwise we would have to Bingo to San Clemente’. A Bingo profile is an emergency, it has to be done exactly for you to make it to your divert with out running out of gas. It is also an admission that you as the flight lead or wingie screwed up, you failed to manage your fuel. Naval Aviation has an old saying, “better to die than look bad.” I knew Icky’s fuel state was lower than mine.
“Hey Mink we are a little tight over here!”
I transmitted over the tanker frequency.
“Roger that.”
Was his transmitted response as he backed out of the re-fueling basket.
The Tanker Bubba’s were listening in and knew the score from years of experience dealing with desperate fighters running out of fuel.
“Bloodhound Lead you are cleared to pre-contact.”
“Roger, Icky cross under and take pre-contact. Get a quick 1000 pounds.”
He didn’t need to be begged he was already closing on the basket.
“Cleared contact.”
The Boom Operator transmitted.
Icky was in the basket and taking fuel within 10 seconds. Our fuel continued to burn at 100 pounds a minute. I had 3 minutes left until an emergency divert. Ray’s voice came over the ICS from the rear cockpit.
(Bingo from this altitude and distance is 2.1)
Great I thought, we are moving away from our bingo air field, now I had two minutes. Icky backed out after a minute and moved out of the way. I didn’t wait for the clearance from the Boomer. As Icky slid to the right so did I, inch for inch at the same rate.
“Cleared contact.”
Time to joust with the Iron Maiden.

Naval Aviators called the basket on a KC-135 the Iron Maiden because it was very user un-friendly! The Air Force and Navy had totally different concepts in aerial re-fueling. Air Force planes would line up behind the tanker maintaining a normal formation, and then the Boom Operator would position a probe and extend it into a receptacle on the receiving aircraft. The Navy extended a basket that was shaped like a lamp shade with metal feathers that expanded when deployed. The feathers or vanes, would keep the basket steady. Unless, a Sea Service Pal banged the basket up trying to get into it, then it would move around. The basket was attached to a long hose that was reeled out from a tanker or a tanker pod called a buddy store. The concept was simple; the pilot would position behind the tanker fly his probe into the center of the basket. Push forward to lock it into the coupling, then push the hose back into the tanker/buddy store until a light turned green then the tanker would transfer fuel. The key was to fly your position off the tanker NOT the basket; because the basket would move, pushed by the bow wave of the receiving aircraft. You had to be precise and smooth, if you hit it too hard a shock wave would go up the hose to the tanker, then back down snapping off your re-fueling probe tip. Not good. If you hit off center the basket would bend then whip free, possibly coming through your side windscreen, also not good. The KC-135 did not have a reeled basket; instead they attached a large metal basket onto the Air Force boom. It was connected by turnbuckles at the boom attach point and the basket attach point. It was very unforgiving, thus the Iron Maiden nickname. The pilot had to perfectly balance the basket, and then hold a bend in the hard hose. Some pilots would rest the hose on the nose of their aircraft to hold it steady.

Each aircraft was different, some were harder than others. The EA-6B for example was a great tanking aircraft. The probe was out in front of the pilot, easy to see and the aircraft was very stable at 250 knots, the normal tanking speed. The F-4 was not so great. The probe came out of the side of the aircraft, out of the view of the pilot. So you either had to sneak a peak or fly the basket where you knew the probe was, the brail technique. The F-4 especially the QF-4 did not like to fly below 300 knots. In fact it was one of the few aircraft that had a waiver from the FAA to fly above 250 knots (up to 300) below 10,000 feet when under IFR control. The Q had a very light nose because the radar had been pulled. To get the aircraft into (barely into) the minimum controllability window for CG (center of gravity) we had to carry fake concrete filled missiles in the forward two fuselage missile stations. As the fuel tanks filled the CG would move, the F-4 already squirrelly would get worse.

The bottom line was, as the Phantom filled, the AOA (angle of attack) would hover around 11.7 units AOA at 12 units the Phantom would pitch up uncontrollably. It was quite a sight (and ride) to see a QF-4 depart off the boom of a tanker. It always got the attention of the boomer!

It was with all this in mind and 1 minute to work with that I flew toward the basket. I should have been conservative but I just couldn’t resist a little bull shit bravado. I waited to flip the switch on the Phantoms re-fueling probe to time the extension so that it fully extended and locked into place just as I plugged it into the basket.
“Good flow.”
The boomer transmitted.
I took a quick 1000 pounds then we all cycled back through the tanker until we were all topped off. We re-formed and turned south for another attack on the Fleet. One day in the life of a Naval Aviator, we took it for granted that it would never end. I only miss it when I breathe….

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