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.