The presence of “Texaco” overhead was usually mandatory during night cyclic operations, and the tanker was almost always the last one aboard at the end of the night.
TANKER POSIT?!: The traditional call of a jet in need.
Of all forms of manned flight, carrier aviation is considered by many to be the most demanding. In order to carry out their combat mission aircrews must fly day or night, and in frequently frightful weather. As explained by Mark Morgan & Rick Morgan in their book Intruder: The Operational History of Grumman’s A-6, the arrival of jet aircraft to carrier decks in the 1950s quickly led to the requirement that a means to refuel while airborne be developed. The first carrier based tankers were AD Skyraiders and AJ Savages, using the English-developed “probe and drogue” method. Before long A4D (A-4) Skyhawks were also carrying out tanker duties, using external, self-contained D-704 or Sergeant-Fletcher built “buddy stores.” The A-6 series was plumbed to carry an external fuel store from inception, and in time the type proved to be what was probably the Navy’s most versatile tanker.
“TEXACO OVERHEAD, ANGELS SIX”: Ship’s call to alert aircraft that gas was airborne.
Compared to both its predecessors and successors in the mission, the Intruder possessed both sufficient fuel give and performance to allow it to either loiter overhead the CV as a departure or recovery tanker, as well as accompany a strike package towards the target. Only the Douglas A-3 series could do both missions as well.
Prior to the arrival of the Intruder the AJ Savage series and A-1 Skyraider were also configured to carry refueling packages. The AJ used an internal hose-drum unit, while the Skyraider used a buddy store on centerline. The A-5 Vigilante and F-4 were also tested as tankers, the Phantom with a centerline buddy store, and the “Vigi” with an internal package located in the aircraft’s linear bomb bay, but neither appears to have been used operationally in this role (and neither, as afterburner-equipped aircraft, made much sense in the mission).
The “typical” early 1980s air wing deployed with four or five KA-6Ds and ten to twelve A-6Es that could carry buddy stores. In addition, the two A-7 squadrons on board also pulled tanker duty with D-704 toting Corsairs. This allowed sufficient tankers to fuel the two fighter squadrons onboard – either F-4s or F-14s. This all changed with the arrival of the F/A-18 Hornet to the fleet in 1984. Overnight the available tanker assets went from three squadrons to just the Intruders, while there were now four afterburner-equipped units to feed. The Intruders carried the load until the S-3 Viking was modified to carry the buddy store on its left wing. The last KA-6D deployed in 1993, with VA-165, while bombers carried buddy-stores for their air wings through to the end.
“401, HORNET BALL, 3.2, TRICK OR TREAT”: Typical call of a jet which either traps on its next pass or will need a tanker or have to divert (“bingo”) to a field.
During normal day carrier operations a tanker will hang out at 6,000 feet (“Angels 6”) and await any customers that need fuel. Normal pattern is a left-hand orbit overhead “Mother” at 250kts with the store retracted. Launching aircraft that require fuel (usually fighter-types) will hit the tanker right after leaving the boat, typically taking 2 or 3,000 pounds before proceeding on mission. As a recovery tanker the duty A-6 may be asked to “hawk” a specific jet in the landing pattern with the goal of being above and to the right of the customer with the hose extended in case the aircraft on approach bolters (misses the wires) or is waved off. Flying the night tanker took a good deal of finesse and experience, and the mission was usually left to more senior pilots in the squadron. Even though a frequently thankless job, the presence of “Texaco” overhead was usually mandatory during night cyclic operations, and the tanker was almost always the last one aboard at the end of the night.
Intruder: The Operational History of Grumman’s A-6 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy