A special tanker at a museum

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

It was just an old airplane headed for a forever-after life in a museum. You, my dear reader, probably saw its picture on the front page of last Thursday’s, April 28, 2022, McCook Gazette. Sixty-two years old and providing worldwide airborne refueling services worldwide throughout its career. No big deal, right? Though come to think of it that particular airframe must have been somehow special to be so honored with a forever life instead of heading to the usual scrapyard. And then come to think of it why was your scribe invited to participate in the ceremony to accept that old airframe into the collection at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio?

That story begins on May 31st, 1967. Our flight crew had been on temporary duty providing air refueling services to our fighter-bomber forces dropping bombs on North Vietnam forces early on in the Vietnam War. For us, it was going home day! Luck of the draw we were assigned Aircraft 60-0329 and we departed our base, U Tapao, Thailand to fly to Okinawa. On the way, we were to meet up with a couple of our F-104’s flying top cover, anti-Mig protection, over the fleet of Navy ships operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. No big deal, offload a couple of thousand pounds of jet fuel to the fighters and head on east.

Then came a request from the Navy controller on a Cruiser below asking us to head north for a possible emergency air refueling up near the North Vietnam shore—just short of enemy territory. When turned over to talk to the aircraft, still over enemy territory, we found out they were a set of Navy air refueling tankers, just like us but much smaller, and a couple of Navy fighter aircraft none of which had enough fuel to get to their Carriers. Ejection, survival at sea and possible rescue loomed as their fate.

Our crew decided that what the heck they were on our side, we had the fuel which they critically needed, so we figured out a way to “get ‘er done.” They were so critically short of fuel when they met up with us and the A3D tanker hooked up an F-8 fighter hooked on to him. Three aircraft all hooked together in flight the first time that it had ever been done. We made that pair happy and they moved over on our wing and the second set hooked up to receive fuel.

With everybody happy that they had enough fuel to make it back home to their Carriers we turned back south only to hear a cry from a pair of Navy F-4s also desperately needing fuel. We satisfied them and then topped off our F-104 escorts. Not enough fuel then for us to make Okinawa so we diverted to friendly DaNang AFB, South Vietnam. There we pumped on enough fuel to make it to our original destination Okinawa.

Our Air Force was greatly disturbed that we had done air refueling to our Navy who credited us with “saving” six Navy aircraft with their crews. Unknown to we ordinary tanker crewmen was that General Curtis Lemay had decreed that “His KC-135s would never refuel a Navy aircraft!” That all stemmed from the big fight with Senior Naval Admirals who were trying to get a “super" aircraft carrier funded and Congress shot that down in favor of buying the LeMay fleet of jet-powered tankers.

After our tri-lever refueling and saving their crews Senior Admirals in the Pentagon sent out many messages of congratulation and thank you’s to the Senior Air Force Generals in the Pentagon. The world had changed and from then to current practice, the Air Force tanker fleet commonly does refuel in-flight Naval aircraft.

Not only was the USAF Museum happy to receive the very first KC-135 that had refueled the Navy in tri-level fashion they were extremely happy to have present the two pilots, the only two remaining crewmen still living, that were flying her that day. In a short congratulatory speech the President of the National Aeronautic Association, the organization that awards the MacKay Trophy which is given annually for “The most meritorious military flight of the year”. Mr. Greg Principato, spoke words that rang true to this old pilot. He said “None of the recipients of that Trophy ever set out to “win” anything. They just accomplished what in Trail’s philosophy ‘Just did what had to be done!’” He then mentioned that sometimes that act initiates a major change in how our military accomplishes their mission. Your old hometown country boy from McCook was greatly humbled.

It is a long drive from McCook to Dayton and return. I was pleased to be accompanied by cousin Chuck, nephews Josh and David, my son Don and grandson Jonathan all named Trail plus Mike Wusk, a chief pilot at NASA whom I taught to fly, Young Kwan, Aerospace engineer, and Dr. Henry Sanicola.

Also present at the ceremony were my crewmate John Casteel with his wife and family, and I was able to track down and invite Jack Barnes, who was a two-striped ground crewman who was aboard and observed the tri-level refueling from the boom pod.

We are indeed a band of brothers and life is exceedingly good.

Love the rain which was so badly needed locally. Should give our crops and gardens a great start so our country will soon turn beautifully green. Best of all it will also make the local wildfires a thing of the past. We are indeed blessed.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

Read more here: https://www.facebook.com/100067639472745/posts/321551636776150/

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  • Good story Dick. I spent 30 plus years working on them.

    -- Posted by greb on Wed, May 4, 2022, at 7:51 PM
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