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Reserve Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Aerial Refueling

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner

On June 27, 1923, U.S. Army Air Services aviators 1st Lt. Virgil Hine and 1st Lt. Frank Seifert carefully maneuvered their DH-4 airplane precariously close to another DH-4 being flown by Capt. Lowell Smith and 1st Lt. John Richter.

With Hine trying to keep his aircraft as steady as possible, Seifert dropped a 50-foot rubber hose to the second DH-4 so that Richter could grab it and place it in his aircraft’s fuel tank. The refueling was dangerous and difficult to execute, but the crews of the two aircraft managed to exchange about 75 gallons of fuel before engine problems forced an end to the experiment.

The four daring aviators made history that day for conducting what is generally considered the world’s first successful aerial refueling. Interestingly, the first attempts at air refueling actually started in 1921 with five-gallon gas cans. On Oct. 2 of that year, a U.S. Navy lieutenant in the back of a Huff-Daland HD-4 used a grappling hook to snag a gas can from a float in the Potomac River. And on Nov. 21 of the same year, a wing walker with a gas can strapped to his back climbed from an airborne Lincoln Standard to a Curtiss IN-4 and proceeded to pour the gas into the aircraft’s tank.

It’s safe to say that these early aviators could never have imagined how far air-to-air refueling would progress over the next 100 years.

Today, boom operators inside the Air Force’s newest refueler, the KC-46A Pegasus, can conduct multi-point simultaneous aerial refuelings through its boom, drogue and wing aerial refueling pods with amazing accuracy. The KC-46’s air refueling operator station includes panoramic displays giving the operator wing-tip to wing-tip situational awareness. While the first aerial refueling delivery vehicle had about 100 gallons of fuel available to offload, the Pegasus can carry more than 212,000 pounds of fuel inside its massive tanks and offload fuel at a rate of up to 1,200 gallons per minute.

Additionally, the KC-46 can accommodate a mixed load of passengers, aeromedical evacuation and cargo capabilities. Depending on fuel storage configuration, the aircraft can carry a palletized load of up to 65,000 pounds of cargo, and it is equipped with a number of state-of-the-art self-protection, defensive and communication features making it more survivable in a contested environment.

The Air Force Reserve has been a main player in the aerial refueling business since 1976 when the Strategic Air Command transferred 128 KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft to the Air Force Reserve. Maj. Gen. William Lyon, the chief of the Air Force Reserve at the time, wanted the aircraft to be assigned to units that were located at SAC bases so that Reserve Citizen Airmen could learn from their active-duty counterparts. Lyon’s decision resulted in the 452nd Tactical Airlift Wing, at what was then known as March Air Force Base in California, being redesignated as the 452nd Air Refueling Wing.

Several years later, in October of 1982, the 452nd ARW began flying the KC-10 Extender alongside the KC-135. By the end of that decade, the unit supported Operation Just Cause in Panama alongside their active-duty counterparts in the 22nd Air Refueling Wing. Less than one year later, both units provided extensive aerial refueling throughout Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

The success of the 452nd ARW and many other Air Force Reserve units during those operations led Air Force leaders to place more reliance on them than ever before. Members of Air Force Reserve aerial refueling units soon found themselves supporting operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq throughout the 1990s.

Reliance on Air Force Reserve aerial refueling assets grew even more after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freeom and Iraqi Freedom, Reserve aerial refueling units were constantly mobilized around the world to provide the support that allowed the United States military and its allies to take the fight to the enemy.

Another test came in July-August 2021 when Reserve Citizen Airmen raced to Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge. During the effort, “Team Travis,” which included the active-duty’s 60th Air Mobility Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 349th Air Mobility Wing, deployed one C-5M Super Galaxy, seven KC-10 Extenders and eight C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

By June 2023, the 100th anniversary of the first air-to-air refueling flight, the Air Force Reserve has continued to advance the skill of aerial refueling in ways that could not have been envisioned 100 years prior. Equipped with the KC-135, KC-10 and the KC-46A, Reserve Citizen Airmen, carrying forward the 100-year tradition, remain focused on innovating, improving and transforming the way in which tanker aircraft refuel the fight.

Today, there are 11 Air Force Reserve air refueling wings and three air mobility wings that include aerial refueling as part of their mission. The command owns 11 KC-46As and 58 KC-135Rs and associates with the active duty to fly and maintain Air Force-owned tankers.

On June 27 of this year, AFRC had 10 aircraft from eight wings participate in Operation Centennial Contact – the Air Mobility Command-led celebration of the 100th anniversary of air-to-air refueling. In all, more than 150 Air Force tankers, including KC-135s, KC-10s and KC-46s, from 26 installations conducted commemorative flyovers across all 50 states.

“Air refueling propels our nation’s air power across the skies, unleashing its full potential,” said Gen. Mike Minihan, AMC commander. “It connects our strategic vision with operational reality, ensuring we can reach any corner of the globe with unwavering speed and precision. Air refueling embodies our resolve to defend freedom and project power, leaving an indelible mark on aviation history.”

Capt. Paxton Petitpas, project officer for McConnell Air Force Base’s participation in Operation Centennial Contact, said, “The first air refueling was literally pilots dangling a hose from their aircraft and they were able to transfer 75 gallons of fuel at that point. That paved the way for what we have today in modern air refueling, which is literally the logistical bridge for the Air Force and cornerstone of our global reach.”

Minihan went on to say, “As we embark on the next 100 years of air refueling, we will continue to strengthen our air mobility excellence. We must leverage the remarkable capabilities of air refueling to preserve peace, protect freedom and bring hope to the world. As Mobility Airmen, we write the next chapter of air refueling.”

As a critical component of the Air Force’s air refueling enterprise, the Air Force Reserve will surely play a major role as that next chapter is written.

(Much of the information in this article was taken from an article written by Dr. Paul Larson, AFRC History Office.)