It All Started with a Rubber Hose

  • Published
  • By Dr. Paul Larson
  • AFRC

An aircraft’s internal fuel capacity was one of the most significant limiting factors that faced early aviators. In order to try to solve that problem, the first aerial refueling occurred above Rockwell Field in San Diego on June 27, 1923.

To accomplish the feat, United States Army Air Service pilots flying an Airco DH-4 dropped a 50-foot rubber hose to a second DH-4 so that the back-seater could grab it and place it in the aircraft’s fuel tank. The refueling was dangerous and difficult to execute, but the crews of the two aircraft managed to exchange about 75 gallons of fuel before engine problems forced an end to the experiment.

Other aviators were willing to risk their lives to further the development of aerial refueling.  During the first week of January 1929, five brave aviators took to the skies in Question Mark, a Fokker C-2 equipped with three powerful engines. Over the course of the next seven days, they remained in the air for more than 150 hours and received more than 5,700 pounds of fuel. Most importantly, they demonstrated that aerial refueling was a relatively safe and repeatable process.

One of the five men aboard the Question Mark was Lt. Elwood “Pete” Quesada. Following exemplary service in World War II, Quesada helped the Continental Air Command to guide the fledgling Air Force Reserve as the service worked to determine exactly how it would employ the Reserve Component forces at their disposal. Unfortunately, aerial refueling was not on the list of missions that Quesada and others had envisioned for the Air Force Reserve. However, times changed, and the Air Force Reserve changed with them.

In 1976, the Strategic Air Command transferred 128 KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft to the Air Force Reserve. Maj. Gen. William Lyon, the chief of the Air Force Reserve at the time, wanted the aircraft to be assigned to units that were located at SAC bases so that Reserve Citizen Airmen could learn from their active-duty counterparts. Lyon’s decision resulted in the 452nd Tactical Airlift Wing, at what was then known as March Air Force Base in California, being redesignated as the 452nd Air Refueling Wing. 

Several years later, in October of 1982, the 452nd ARW began flying the KC-10 Extender alongside the KC-135. By the end of that decade, the unit supported Operation Just Cause in Panama alongside their active-duty counterparts in the 22nd Air Refueling Wing. Less than one year later, both units provided extensive aerial refueling throughout Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

The success of the 452nd ARW and many other Air Force Reserve units during those operations led Air Force leaders to place more reliance on them than ever before. Members of Air Force Reserve aerial refueling units soon found themselves supporting operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq throughout the 1990s.

Reliance on Air Force Reserve aerial refueling assets grew even more after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freeom and Iraqi Freedom, Reserve aerial refueling units were constantly mobilized around the world to provide the support that allowed the United States military and its allies to take the fight to the enemy.

Another test came in July-August 2021 when Reserve Citizen Airmen raced to Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge. During the effort, “Team Travis,” which included the active-duty’s 60th Air Mobility Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 349th Air Mobility Wing, deployed one C-5M Super Galaxy, seven KC-10 Extenders and eight C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

By June 2023, the 100th anniversary of the first air-to-air refueling flight, the Air Force Reserve has continued to advance the skill of aerial refueling in ways that could not have been envisioned 100 years prior. Equipped with the KC-135, KC-10 and the KC-46A Pegasus, Reserve Citizen Airmen, carrying forward the 100-year tradition, remain focused on innovating, improving and transforming the way in which tanker aircraft refuel the fight.