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Tankers at War: Air Refueling in Southeast Asia

Refueling in flight made long-distance flying operations possible in Southeast Asia. Heavily-laden aircraft like the F-105 Thunderchief, F-4 Phantom and B-52 Stratofortress needed fuel on the way to and from their targets. Getting gas from tankers allowed them to carry maximum bomb loads, and search and rescue helicopters increased their range with air refueling as well.

Complex Operations
In-flight refueling depended on precise timing and navigation. Bombers, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft were carefully scheduled to meet tankers at given times and places.

When meeting B-52 bombers on long-distance missions, for example, three or four KC-135 Stratojet tankers would fly together, with the leader responsible for navigation and timing. The others stayed a mile behind and slightly above, and they spread out while refueling bombers to keep a safe distance between them.

Refueling fighter and reconnaissance planes near combat zones was complicated. Several meeting areas called "anchors" over Thailand, Laos, South Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin were set up so fighters could select the nearest airborne gas station on the way to and from their targets. Sometimes 50 or more aircraft met and circled over a wide area as fuel changed hands. Tankers often overflew hostile territory to meet and fuel planes that otherwise would not have made it home. Many pilots owed the success of their missions -- and some owed their lives -- to being refueled by tankers.

Tankers also refueled helicopters. The USAF tested the concept of in-flight helicopter refueling in 1965 and began operations in mid-1967. Air Force HC-130P tankers, which were modified C-130 Hercules transports, helped search and rescue and special operations HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopters greatly extend their range.

Impressive Numbers
The USAF based KC-135 tankers in Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Guam. During the Southeast Asia War, tankers flew nearly 200,000 sorties, completing more than 800,000 refuelings. From 1964 through 1973, they pumped almost 1.4 billion gallons of fuel to other aircraft, enough to fill more than 2,120 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

At the height of tanker deployment in late 1972, 195 aircraft -- 30 percent of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) tanker force -- were based in Southeast Asia. U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand, was the largest tanker base in Southeast Asia, with 46 aircraft and 88 crews flying sixty sorties daily to keep pace with air power's massive fuel needs.

By mid-August 1973, with the final U.S. air strike in Cambodia, SAC tankers had logged 911,364 total flying hours in Southeast Asia. Tanker operations continued into 1975 with support for evacuations near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Saigon, South Vietnam, as the war ended.

Though tankers were not used for combat, missions could be dangerous. Twenty-five Air Force personnel died in tanker crashes, on take-off or landing, in Southeast Asia.

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