When a KC-135 Stratotanker Saved an F-4

On September 5, 1983, several Boeing KC-135A Stratotankers and McDonnell Douglas KC-10A Extenders were accompanying two dozen F-4E Phantom II fighters on their way to Europe. Phantom’s unrefueled range doesn’t let it make transatlantic flights, but that’s what aerial tankers are made for — to extend an aircraft’s range to whatever is necessary. However, on that day a Stratotanker crew did much more than that. They saved a Phantom crew that got into an otherwise desperate situation in the middle of the Atlantic.

KC-135 Stratotanker
KC-135 Stratotanker

Trouble above the frigid waters of North Atlantic

The Phantoms took off from the Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina, and were later joined by the tankers. When the group of aircraft was halfway across the ocean, one of the fighters, crewed by Maj. Jon ‘Ghost’ Alexander and his weapons system officer, started experiencing mechanical problems.

An oil leak caused a full shutdown of one of the Phantom’s two engines. It was rerouted back for an emergency landing at the nearest airfield over 500 miles away — Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. One of the tankers, a KC-135A, callsign ‘North Star,’ under the command of Capt. Robert E. Goodman was also diverted to escort the ailing fighter.

KC-135 Stratotanker
A KC-135 Stratotanker. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Mary E. Greenwood)

Hooking up at a landing speed

The very first refueling on their way to Newfoundland proved to be a very hard task. By that time the Phantom was on the verge of stalling, quickly losing speed and altitude even though its pilot had jettisoned three drop tanks. To further exacerbate the situation, the F-4s hydraulic systems failed, degrading the Phantom’s ability to maneuver. Trying to connect to the crippled fighter at an altitude of about 4,500 ft the KC-135 lowered its landing gear and slowed down to mere 230 mph.

Finally, the Stratotanker’s crew managed to connect the boom and started refueling the jet. Maintaining that contact wasn’t easy though. To compensate for the Phantom’s poor speed and generate sufficient lift both aircraft had to adopt a high angle of attack. Besides, the F-4 was constantly being driven to the right due to one dead engine and failing controls.

An US Air Force (USAF) F-4 Phantom II aircraft is refueled in flight by a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker

A happy end

At some point the aircraft became disconnected, but the airmen didn’t give up. The two crews conducted several rendezvous, re-establishing the link over and over again on their way to Canada. Each time doing that at speeds and altitudes well below established standards for aerial refueling. The most amazing part of this story is that the Stratotanker essentially towed the half-disabled Phantom midair for a good part of the way. Using its refueling boom the tanker continuously helped the fighter regain lost altitude. Finally, the Phantom made a safe landing at Gander.

Later the KC-135 crew was awarded the Mackay Trophy by the U.S. Air Force for “the most meritorious flight of the year.”