The day a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker saved six US Navy jets over the Gulf of Tonkin

The day a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker saved six US Navy jets over the Gulf of Tonkin

By Dario Leone
Aug 9 2023
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The KC-135 Stratotanker

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.

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.

The USAF KC-135 Stratotanker that saved six US Navy jets

On May 31, 1967 one Stratotanker commanded by Maj. John H. Casteel saved six Navy aircraft over the Gulf of Tonkin with a complex and totally unscheduled refueling.

As told by Walter J. Boyne in an interesting article appeared on Air & Space Forces Magazine, the KC-135’s original mission was to refuel two F-104 Starfighters, using the drogue adapter that the probe-equipped F-104s required. After the two F-104s were refueled by Casteel’s Stratotanker was then told of an emergency involving two US Navy KA-3 Skywarrior (dubbed “Whale” by its aircrews) tanker aircraft, which also used probes.

The first KA-3 had only three minutes’ usable fuel when it hooked up. The Whale could not use fuel it had in its refueling tanks because its systems had malfunctioned. After transferring 2,300 pounds, the Stratotanker then refueled the second Skywarrior just as it was notified that two US Navy F-8 Crusaders supersonic fighter jets were on scene and short of fuel.

The KC-135 that saved six US Navy jets with history’s first trilevel refueling

Given that it had only 300 pounds remaining one of the Crusaders immediately hooked up with the second KA-3 even as it was taking on fuel from the KC-135, initiating history’s first trilevel refueling. As this was going on, the first KA-3 shared its slender fuel supply with the second Crusader. The Whale then moved into position to refuel again from the KC-135.

After refueling the F-104s, and saving two KA-3s and two F-8s, Casteel and his crew had had a pretty productive day, but the action was not yet complete.

In fact, two US Navy F-4 Phantom IIs arrived on scene, and neither had sufficient fuel to return to their carrier. Even though already low on fuel itself, the Stratotanker turned south toward Da Nang, refueling the two F-4s en route.

The Stratotanker landed with less than 10,000 pounds of fuel remaining for its own use. The boom operator, MSgt. Nathan C. Campbell, had earned his pay, saving no fewer than six Navy aircraft. Casteel’s crew, including the copilot, Capt. Richard L. Trail, and the navigator, Capt. Dean L. Hoar, received Distinguished Flying Crosses for the action. The crew subsequently was awarded the Mackay Trophy.

Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Osprey Publishing and U.S. Navy

KC-135 Print
This print is available in multiple sizes from – 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

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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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