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Flight of the Question Mark

On 1 January, 1929, a record setting journey began which carried repercussions for decades after. The objective was to test the practical use of inflight refueling and the endurance of both man and machine. A modified Atlantic (Fokker) C-2A trimotor, the “Question Mark,” established a world duration record of 150 hours and 40 minutes. The two tankers for the operation were modified Douglas C-1 biplanes, each equipped with two 150 gallon tanks and a forty foot transfer hose. Question Mark had two 96 gallon standard wing tanks, and was supplemented with two additional 150 gallon tanks, a hopper for download, lines, and manual pumps for fuel transfer to the wing tanks.

The five crewmembers of the Question Mark were Major Carl A. Spaatz, Captain Ira Eaker, 1st Lieutenant Harry Halverson, 1st Lieutenant Elwood Quesada, and Master Sergeant Roy Hooe. Tanker 1 was crewed by Captain Ross G. Hoyt, 1st Lieutenant Auby Strickland, and 2nd Lieutenant Irwin Woodring. Tanker 2 was crewed by 1st Lieutenant Odas Moon, and 2nd Lieutenants Joseph Hopkins and Andrew Salter. Captain Hoyt’s crew flew 27 sorties and ten at night. 1st Lieutenant Moon’s flew sixteen sorties and two at night. Ground operations and logistics fell to Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf.

            While flying a pattern between Santa Monica and San Diego, approximately 110 miles, the planes made 43 contacts, allowing the Question Mark to remain airborne until engine problems forced it to land near Burbank. Fuel transfers lasted averaged seven and a half minutes, totaling 5,660 gallons of fuel through a 1¾ inch hose, borrowed from a local fire department. Along with fuel, Engine oil, food, water, spare parts, batteries, and even mail were transferred, eventually bringing the total transfer weight to nearly 20 tons. The entire operation was accomplished without radio, but flags, flares, flashlights, message bag transfers and messages painted on other planes. The distance traveled was approximately 11,000 miles, proving the endurance of the engines, airframes, and men. In the end, only a failure of the rocker arm lubricating system ended the flight, proving that man’s endurance could out-perform the machine.

            On January 26th, 1929, the crew of the Question Mark were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Subsequently, the Tanker Crews were given formal letters of commendation. In a ceremony at the Pentagon on May 26. 1976, Hoyt and Hopkins were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, however the remaining member of the crews were deceased.


 Bernard C. Nalty, ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Volume I (Washington D.C.: Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998), 115.

 Richard K. Smith, Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling: Highlights, 1923-1998 (Washington D.C., Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998), 3.

Bernard C Nalty, ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Volume I (Washington D.C.: Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998), 116.

Richard K. Smith, Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling: Highlights, 1923-1998 (Washington D.C., Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998), 6.

Bibliography:

Nalty, Bernard C., ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force, Volume I. Washington D.C.: Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998.

Smith, Richard K. Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling: Highlights, 1923-1998. Washington D.C.: Air Force History & Museums Program, 1998.