started the other three engines at once. It was a thousand needles
dancing together. Bingo, we were ready to go.
We were then told, via messages that had to be decoded and
verified, what to do next. Sometimes we just started engines;
sometimes we started and taxied; sometimes we started and
waited for another message, engines running. We never had to
launch for real.
On alert status, tankers weighed 303,000 pounds, 200,000
pounds of which was fuel. The calculation was that you would
be at your max gross takeoff weight of 297,000 pounds by the
time you got to liftoff. If launched, our mission was to give the
bomber whatever amount of fuel it needed. We could offload all
but 6,500 pounds of what was called “slosh fuel.” It was then our
mission to find a place to land using that slosh fuel. That gave us,
oh, 25 to 30 minutes.
The Soviets knew that if they launched, they
would get hammered in return. By whom?
Crewdogs: highly trained, dedicated, patriotic.
The fuel panel on the KC-135 was a rather impressive array;
it had 10 fuel tanks. There were three tanks in each wing and
four in the body—forward body, center wing, aft body, and upper
deck. You could only offload from the forward body and aft body
tanks, so you had to plan ahead by draining from the other tanks
Lauran, back in his “happy place” standing in front of a single-pilot Grumman OV-1D
Mohawk in the late ‘80s.
into those two while staying in center of gravity. It was often an
Refueling in the air—actually hooking up to another airplane—
was actually fun. Serious, but fun. To join up, the tanker would
set up an orbit at the initial point. Then you’d generally go head
to head, and the navigator would call for the tanker to turn at the
computed time such that you’d roll out in front of the receivers.
We usually had a 2,000-foot block of airspace in case we had an
emergency disconnect. The receivers would then stabilize in
position and establish communication with the boom operator.
The boom operator, laying on his belly, then “flew” the refueling
probe (with what looked like the tail on a V-tail Bonanza) to the
receiver receptacle, extended it, and—clunk!—you were hooked up.
Pass the gas. And, yeah, there was occasional banter: “Could you
wash the windows too, please?” and “Put it on my tab.” Fighters,
being more maneuverable, could move a little here and there
to stay in position, and it took less time to fill them up. A B- 52
was another matter: Maneuvering 450,000 pounds of airplane
loaded with bombs took some work. They had to get it right early
and keep it right, and most all of them did. If they took 100,000
pounds of fuel, they had to stay on the boom for a longer time. As
a B- 52 approached the tail of the tanker, you could actually feel
the bow wave trying to push the tail up!
Then there was the probe-and-drogue refueling apparatus
for certain types of fighters. The drogue was basically a basket
attached to a hose that trailed behind the tanker. Once lowered
from the stowed position, it was up to the receiver to plug into
it. In turbulence, it could be a bit of a challenge with airplanes
and drogue bouncing. One receiver once hooked the apparatus,
overran it, and tore it off. He flew home with the hose trailing
alongside his airplane. I heard they hung it over the Officers Club
bar and put his name on it. Later, they took it down and gave it
to him, and he took it home and made a horse feeder out of the
In Vietnam, we’d top off the fighters before they went to their
target. Then we orbited until they came out. If they had to use
a lot of afterburner or got delayed on target, they’d often need