Cold War Era

KC-97 Navigator tells the story of when his tanker refueled the then top-secret U-2 planes flying spy missions over Soviet Union

I was talking our first “hookup” down to us– asked his altitude “classified”, airspeed “classified” and finally “rate of descent”- got that and with my watch estimated he was at 80-85000 feet. This was 1956!!

A cargo version of the B-29, the C-97 Stratofreighter first flew in November 1944. Boeing introduced the tanker version, KC-97 with the “flying boom” refueling system, in 1950.

The boom had controls so the boom operator or “boomer” could literally “fly” the end of the boom from the KC-97 aerial tanker into the receiving airplane.

In all, the USAF ordered 890 aircraft: 74 C-97s and 816 KC-97s.

The KC-97 tankers became crucial to Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations.

Circa 1956. Barksdale AFB.

Our KC- 97 crew of 6 were huddled into a ready room and the door was locked by a group of thugs in Hawaiian Shirts smoking cigarettes.

This was their message:

“You Grunts are going on a Mission and if you so much as burp about anything you see we will find you and cut your tongues out and shove them up your butts!!”

U-2 refueled from a KC-97

“Do we make ourselves clear ??”

Of course they did.

Later we were given a flight plan and I laid out a course for Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas. To this day I remember it being a beautiful cross-country flight over Texas.

After arrival we saw aircraft we had never seen before. They were modified Canberra’s (B-57’s) with extremely long wings.

We were to (and did) refuel them at night-since our service altitude was 15000 ft fully loaded with 40000 lbs of JP-4, plus Av-gas.

Our 1st mission takeoff was nearly our last- we were too heavy for the shorter runway and we’re still in the ground when we ran out of concrete.

The Aircraft Commander jerked the wheel back and we gained about 50 ft. There we stayed for what seemed like an eternity- probably 10 min- expecting to crash and blow up. However our plane slowly began to gain altitude and we took off ” lighter” on subsequent missions.

I took this photo of a KC-97 flight in 1957.

I was talking our first “hookup” down to us– asked his altitude “classified”, airspeed “classified” and finally “rate of descent”- got that and with my watch estimated he was at 80-85000 feet. This was 1956!!

We did this for several days and discovered that these birds were the U-2’s flying missions over Russia. Eisenhower was President and publicly pleading with Khrushchev for an “open skies” policy while spying on him.

Khrushchev was furious and desperate to shoot down a U-2. But that didn’t happen until 1960 with Francis Gary Powers and I was in Medical School at the time and flying with the AF Reserve- Ellington AFB Houston.

Different era but it was my understanding these pilots had poison pills” to take in case they were shot down or had mechanical failure.

That’s the story-about how early these spy birds were being used.

Interestingly NASA has three WB-57 aircraft (modified Canberras) at Ellington for high altitude research currently.

Photo credit: Richard Fisher and U.S. Air Force via Air Refueling Archive

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. U-2S Dragon Lady “Senior Span”, 9th RW, 99th RS, 80-329
Richard Fisher MD

Richard Fisher is a former Airman. He flew with USAF for 7 years and logged about 2000 hours as a Navigator. He got his Pvt.​ Pilot License along the way.​

View Comments

  • Hello!

    According to Chris Pocock in his authoritarian "50 Years of the U-2", p146, the first modifications to add the in-flight refueling capability to the U-2 fleet were not started until 1961, and the following CIA memo (declassified) confirms that no IFR capability was available in July 1960 to the CIA's U-2 fleet (which was more advanced than its USAF counterpart) : https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/document/cia-rdp33-02415a000100070009-3
    So the claims from the testimony have to be considered with caution, I am afraid.
    What MIGHT have happened what that the SAC flew U-2s into precontact position to assess the IFR-ability. But it seems quite sure that no fuel transfer occurred at that time.

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