In the years following World War II, as the U.S. Navy sought to retain its long-standing position as the front line of the nation’s defense in the nuclear age, it contracted for development of a jet-powered bomber to wield naval aviation’s atomic punch. Famed Douglas Aircraft Company engineer Ed Heinemann and his team delivered the A3D Skywarrior.
With the advent of the Polaris missile, the Navy’s carrier-based heavy attack mission faded and the versatile A3D (redesignated A-3 in 1962) assumed other roles and missions, which included photoreconnaissance, electronic countermeasures and aerial refueling.
According to the book The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, one of the most amazing KA-3 Skywarrior tanker missions was flown by Lieutenant Commander Don Alberg of the VAH-4 detachment aboard USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, in mid-May, 1967, at the height of Operation Rolling Thunder during the Vietnam War. The four KA-3Bs – call signs “Hollygreen” 896, 897, 898, and 899 respectively and led by Lieutenant Commander John Wunsch in 896 – were tasked with supporting a strike on Hanoi by 16 A-4 Skyhawks of VA-212 “Rampant Raiders.” With the Skyhawks fully fueled, the four Skywarriors took up a racecourse pattern off the coast to await their return.
Ten minutes later, Lieutenant Commander Arvin Chauncey’s A-4 took a hit and he ejected 50 miles from Hanoi. Four F-8 Crusaders from VF-24 “Red Checkertails” assumed RESCAP for him. Alberg recalled:
‘Wunsch notified Hollygreen 898 and 899, numbers three and four of our flight, that they would assume responsibility for tanking the strike on egress and that he and I – Hollygreen 896 and 897, respectively – would cover the RESCAP. Everything was standard procedure. All that was now needed was for the SH-2 Seasprite launched from the duty SAR destroyer to arrive and pick up Chauncey.’
Regardless of how “routine” any military mission may be, the vagaries of weather and the mechanical reliability of equipment can always change the routine into the memorable. “About fifteen minutes later, we heard that our chopper had a mechanical abort and they were launching a backup.” Soon, Alberg and Wunsch were the only US airplanes in the vicinity when they learned the second helicopter had also aborted. “We kept calling the task force about the chopper but didn’t get a solid answer. The RESCAP leader detached two F-8s to tank with us. At last, the third helicopter they launched was reported inbound.” This helicopter was launched from Enterprise herself, rather than from an escort ship, which was more than 100 miles out at sea. Arrival was a good hour away at best speed. In any rescue, time is of the essence; this one was beginning to look very iffy.
The two Skywarriors again provided fuel for the thirsty F-8s and maintained their position. As the two F-8s went “feet dry” inbound to the site of the rescue, Alberg watched his own fuel status with increasing anxiety. “We were close to ‘bingo’ for our internal fuel, but the helo was nowhere in sight, and the F-8s weren’t going to make it back to the carrier without another hook-up.”
Finally, after what seemed like much longer than an hour, the Sea King hove into view and headed inland. At this point, Alberg had ten minutes’ fuel, and Wunsch six. The tankers needed tanking – fast! “I called on all the tanker frequencies, and a KC-135 reported he was nearby. I asked his altitude, and he was at 28,000 feet. We were at 1,500 feet, so no way would we have enough gas to climb up to him. He said he’d come down.”
When the big Air Force tanker arrived, Wunsch made the first hookup and took on 30 minutes of fuel, then Alberg followed:
“He got his fuel and I moved in. I had trouble hooking up because the Air Force system with the basket was different from that of the Navy. With the Navy, if you hit the basket and put the tip in with a push, you’ll screw up the hose and it won’t feed. With the Air Force, it’s just the opposite. I probed three times for maybe five minutes and was really sweating a flameout and a crash because I couldn’t get a hookup, and then they got around to telling me this.”
With connection made at last, Alberg breathed more easily as his fuel-gauge indicators moved upwards. Meanwhile, the rescue mission failed in the most heartbreaking manner when the North Vietnamese captured Lieutenant Commander Chauncey while the rescue helicopter was still five minutes away. The F-8s had remained on station longer than they should have; when they went “feet wet” coming out of North Vietnam, each had less than ten minutes’ fuel remaining.
Having just solved the difficulty of hooking into the basket, Alberg was only beginning to take on fuel:
“I had about seven or eight minutes’ fuel on board and couldn’t unhook. They couldn’t wait. I deployed my hose, and the F-8s came in one at a time and took on fuel from me while the KC-135 fueled us. Fortunately, our intake system was faster than our delivery system, so we brought in more than we needed to keep flying.”
The complicated aerial ballet took place within sight of the enemy coastline.
With the F-8s fueled and on their way home, Alberg dropped back so that Wunsch could take on enough fuel to get back to Enterprise, and the two crews thanked the KC-135 crew for their help. The Air Force tanker had burned so much fuel at low altitude that it could not return to Thailand and had to make an emergency recovery at Da Nang:
“Several weeks later, we got word that the crew of the KC-135 had been brought up by Seventh Air Force on charges of abandoning their assigned post and were going to be court-martialed. We let the Air Force know these guys had saved two A-3s and four F-8s – ten aircrew, who would definitely not have made it home feet dry had the Air Force not saved us. So, instead of a court-martial, they were each awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross! We got a pat on the back and a “Well done” from the Task Force Commander.”
The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Osprey Publishing and U.S. Navy
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