KC-135 navigator tells the story of when his Stratotanker towed a badly damaged F-111 Fighter Bomber through the skies of North Vietnam back to Thailand

KC-135 navigator tells the story of when his Stratotanker towed a badly damaged F-111 Fighter Bomber through the skies of North Vietnam back to Thailand

By Dario Leone
Nov 15 2022
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The KC-135 Stratotanker crew verified the location of the distressed F-111 Aardvark and headed north until the two aircraft were in view of each other.

The Boeing Company’s model 367-80 was the basic design for the commercial 707 passenger plane as well as the KC-135A Stratotanker. In 1954, the Air Force purchased the first 29 of its future 732-plane fleet. The first aircraft flew in August 1956 and the initial production Stratotanker was delivered to Castle Air Force Base (AFB), Calif., in June 1957.

The last KC-135 was delivered to the US Air Force (USAF) in 1965. Throughout the many major events the USAF has been a part of, this aircraft continues to stand the test of time.

According to the following, incredible story that appeared in the article titled 60 YEARS IN THE AIR: The KC-135 during the Vietnam War and written by Airman 1st Class Tara Fadenrecht, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, the KC-135 played a decisive role during the Vietnam War too, where the Stratotanker not only allowed heavy fighter-bombers to reach North Vietnamese targets and return, but also towed them back to their bases when they were badly damaged by enemy action.

Towing a badly damaged F-111 in the skies over North Vietnam

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We’ve been struck by a missile,” called the voice on the radio.

The transmission blared over the headsets of the crew on a KC-135 Stratotanker about to return to base after a successful refueling mission in the midst of the Vietnam Conflict.

Retired Maj. Jim Hickman was the navigator on that tanker crew that received the distress signal and he vividly remembers the events that transpired shortly after. The crew members exchanged glances and began weighing their options, when Hickman made the call.

USAF pilot recalls the night’s mission where the terrain-following radar of several F-111 attack aircraft failed to work

“Let’s go get him,” he said.

The tanker crew called back over the radio, verified the location of the distressed F-111 Aardvark and headed north until the two aircraft were in view of each other.

“He pulled in behind us, we got the boom into the receptacle and started transferring fuel,” said the retired navigator.

It wasn’t until the boom operator saw fuel spilling out of the aircraft that they realized the extent of the damage to the fighter. Getting the aircraft and its crew safely back to base was going to take a bit of ingenuity.

“We have a thing that we do called locking the toggles,” said Hickman. “When you lock the toggles on a receiver you can actually tow him. So we did that, and kept giving him fuel.”

The KC-135 towed the fighter through the skies of North Vietnam back to Thailand. When they got close to the base where the F-111 was operating out of, the boom operator unlocked the toggles, disconnected and the fighter glided in for a safe landing.

“That was probably one of the greatest experiences in all my time in the Strategic Air Command,” said Hickman. “There were two crew members on there. If they would have bailed out they’d have been captured and thrown in prison.”

KC-135R print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

Photo credit: SSGT FERNANDO SERNA / U.S. Air Force


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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