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Twenty-nine years ago this week, the valiant crew of a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker performed multiple aerial refuelings of a stricken USAF F-4E Phantom II over the North Atlantic Ocean.  Conducted under extremely perilous flight conditions, the remarkable actions of the aerial tanker’s crew allowed the F-4E to remain aloft long enough to safely divert to an alternate landing field.

On Monday, 05 September 1983, a pair of USAF F-4E Phantom II fighter-bombers departed the United States for a routine flight to Germany.  To negotiate the trans-atlantic distance, the F-4E’s would require aerial refueling.  As they approached the refueling rendezvous point, one of the aircraft developed trouble with its No. 2 engine.  Though still operative, the engine experienced a significant loss of thrust.

The problem with the Phantom’s engine caused it to lose speed and altitude.  Further, its No. 1 engine began to overheat as it tried to keep the aircraft airborne.  As if this were not enough, the aircraft’s starboard hydraulic system became inoperative.  Coupled with the fact that the fuel gauge was edging toward empty, the specter of an ejection and parachute landing in the cold Atlantic looked all but certain for the F-4E crew.

Enter the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and her crew of Captain Robert J. Goodman, Captain Michael R. Clover, 1st Lt Karol R. Wojcikowski and SSgt Douglas D. Simmons.   Based with the 42nd Aerial Refueling Squadron, their immediate problem was two-fold.  First, locate and navigate to the pair of F-4E aircraft flying somewhere over the open ocean.  Second, get enough fuel to both aircraft so the latter could complete their trans-atlantic hop.  Time was of the essence.

Following execution of the rendezvous, the KC-135 crew needed to get their steed out in front of the fuel-hungry Phantoms.  The properly operating Phantom quickly took on a load of fuel.  However, the stricken aircraft continued to lose altitude as its pilot struggled just to keep the aircraft in the air.  By the time the first hook-up occurred, both the F-4E and KC-135 were flying below an altitude of 7,000 feet.

Whereas normal refueling airspeed is 315 knots, the refueling operation between the KC-135 and F-4E occurred below 200 knots.  Both aircraft had to fly at high angle-of-attack to generate sufficient lift at this low airspeed.  Boom Operator Simmons was faced with a particularly difficult challenge in that the failed starboard hydraulics of the F-4E caused it to yaw to the right.  Nonetheless, he was able to make the hook-up with the F-4E refueling recepticle and transfer a bit of fuel to the ailing aircraft.

The transfer of fuel ceased during the first aerial refueling when the mechanical limits of the aircraft-to-aircraft connection were exceeded.  The F-4E started to dive as it came off the refueling boom.  At this critical juncture, Captain Goodman made the decision to follow the Phantom and get down in front of it for another go at aerial refueling.  As the second fuel transfer operation began, the airspeed indicator registered 190 knots; barely above the KC-135′s landing speed.

While additional fuel was transferred to the F-4E, it was still not enough for it to make the divert airfield at Gander, New Foundland.  The KC-135 performed two more risky aerial refuelings of the struggling Phantom.  The last of which occurred at an altitude of only 1,600 feet above the ocean.  At times during these harrowing operations, the KC-135 actually towed the F-4E on its refueling boom to help the latter gain altitude.

At length, the F-4E manged to climb to 6,000 feet and maintain 220 knots as its No. 1 engine began to cool.  Able to fend for itself once again, the Phantom punched-off the KC-135 refueling boom.  Goodman and crew continued to escort the F-4E to the now-close landing field at Gander, New Foundland.  The Phantom pilot greased the landing much to the relief and joy of all.

For their heroic efforts on that eventful September day over the North Atlantic, the crew of the KC-135 received the USAF’s Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of 1983.

Posted in Aerospace, History

Comments

Thanks for the posting on Bob Goodman and his fellow refuelers. Your post is one of the few that records much of the detail on the F-4 “towing.” I’ll vouch for the details you provided. I was the Ops Officer of the 42ARS when the crew made the save on the F-4. There’s always “more to the story,” but your details are great reading.

J. Terry White March 18, 2013

Hello Bruce! Thanks for verifying the correctness of this blog entry. Simply amazing what those guys did. I have always maintained that reality is more interesting and compelling than any fiction. BTW, I would be very interested in hearing about the “more to the story” aspects regarding this incident!

Alaine Tingey March 21, 2013

Hello Sir,

I wanted to let you know that at least one of the names on the picture that you’ve posted is not correct. Capt. Robert J. Goodman is the man on the far left.

J. Terry White March 25, 2013

Hello Alaine! Thank you for the heads-up. I did a little more homework and found that I had misidentified both Captain Goodman and Lt Wojcikowski. These discrepancies have been amended thanks to your help!

james fish August 12, 2013

Having worked as Chief Admin in Stan Eval and with many honorable flight crews from 42 ARS and 407th ARS and 69th Bomb Sq. I left Loring in Dec 1980 this does not surprise me. My honor in life was to have served at Loring and the USAF. Thanks for posting.

Fred Lange October 13, 2013

For what it is worth, my recollections also support this recounting.

I was part of this tanker task force out of Loring: three cells, 30 minute intervals, 1 KC-10 and 1 KC-135 refueling 4 F-4s in each cell headed to Europe. I was flying a KC-10 in the second cell, in the cell ahead of me an F-4 developed engine troubles and he and his wingman peeled of to divert into Gander (about an hour behind them). Quick decisions calculated the KC-10 could get the two remaining F-4s in his cell to destination so the KC-135 peeled off to render whatever assistance they could and chased the two aborting F-4s down. As the troubled F-4 could not maintain altitude, he punched off his externals but was still unable to maintain altitude – he was also having some lateral flight control issues. The 135 maneuvered into position and they got a manual boom latch at around 2000′ over the North Atlantic. I recall there were a few disconnects along the way but they were able to get them over the airfield. We were not even aware of all this until we landed.

As this crew received the USAF’s Premier Airmanship award for that year, I would defer to its documentation over any discrepancies in my recollections of so long ago.

I recall stories of this kind of save during Viet Nam but it was cool to see the tanker culture still alive in the 1980s. I met this crew in the club the night before and there was no hint in their personalities that they were anything special – just your average Tanker Toads – says something about your average Tanker Toads.

J. Terry White November 9, 2013

Hey Fred! Thank you for providing insights into the “rest of the story”. I agree with you that “Tanker Toads” are pretty special!

Doug Woolery December 8, 2013

This story has been retold by myself to countless “victims” of my storytelling for years. The account that I had read, and forgive me if I am wrong, was in either Airman Magazine, or Air Force Magazine. It was a real nail biter told in narrative and first person. As a young airman maintaining F-4E/G Phantoms at Ramstein AB, the story hit close to home. The actions of all parties surrounding the event, from nose to tail within the KC-135 and both Pilot and WSO within the Phantom, were nothing short of remarkable. Should anyone ever stumble upon the story which was 2-4 pages in lenth, please post. There was so much more than what only a paragraph or two could cover here.

Doug Woolery, Tsgt USAF (ret.)

Jon "Ghost" Alexander December 25, 2013

I was the pilot of the F-4E on this mission. The above gives the “gist” of the episode there are several errors.(Eg. Bob was the designited spare tanker for the ocean crossing, my Wso and my wingman’s Wso found the tanker, not vice versa, I was in cell #3 etc, etc. There is a six page story about this in the Aug ’84 Airman titled “Hell or High Water”. There is also a very detailed account in the book “War Stories and Flying Tales”, a large hard cover book sponsored by the Daedalians. Cheers, Ghost Alexander, Ret Lt Col Usaf.

Ps. I received the Kolligian Trophy from the AF Chief of Staff about a week after Bob got the McKay trophy. I also heard last year the Bob had passed away

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