The KC-135Q Story, Part Three: Refueling ’Black’ Aircraft

The KC-135Q Story, Part Three: Refueling ’Black’ Aircraft
Full Scale Development Aircraft Five (FSD-5), Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk 79-7084. being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker, July 1983

Perhaps the most intriguing role for the KC-135Q was a repeated, but never verified, 1990 association with an unidentified and highly classified ‘black’ aircraft.

The KC-135Q Story, Part Three.

The intensity of the December 1972 LINEBACKER II aerial campaign meant that current Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and targeting intelligence acquired by GIANT SCALE SR-71 missions be made available quickly to senior planners in Washington DC. In the absence of real-time satellite data links, this required a dedicated courier system known as GIANT CIRCLE, and involved four KC-135s, including KC-135Qs, when available. The first of these carried SR-71 imagery from Kadena AB to MACV at Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam. Additional intelligence acquired from US Navy BLUE TREE tactical reconnaissance flights and SAC drones would be uploaded to this KC-135 which then returned to Kadena AB. A second KC-135 would then take this consolidated material (and any new SR-71 imagery) and fly direct to Eielson AFB. A third KC-135 then carried this material to Washington DC, landing at Andrews AFB. It took 12 hours from the time the SR-71 landed at Kadena AB until its imagery was in the hands of theater planners in Saigon, and 24 hours until it reached the Pentagon. GIANT CIRCLE began on Dec. 19, 1972, although operational demand for KC-135s meant that the inaugural flight from Kadena AB to Eielson AFB was aboard a BURNING PIPE RC-135C. On Dec. 27, the fourth KC-135 was added to transfer duplicate intelligence from Eielson AFB direct to Offutt AFB.

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As explained by Robert S Hopkins III in his book The Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, for all the seeming emphasis on A-12 and SR-71 operations in Southeast Asia, SAC had similar plans for SR-71 missions on the other side of the world. By April 1970 SAC planned GIANT REACH missions to provide ELINT and PHOTINT coverage of the Middle East and peripheral ELINT missions to cover Eastern Europe. An SR-71 and three KC-135Qs would deploy to Torrejon AB, Spain, with five additional KC-135Qs at Incirlik AB, Turkey. Spain rejected the proposal, however, and the SR-71 and the three KC-135Qs were instead slated for RAF Mildenhall, as were the Incirlik-based KC-135Qs. Despite these early plans, the first SR-71 visit to England did not take place until the 1974 record-setting flight to the Farnborough Air Show (supported by KC-135Qs), and the first operational evaluation sortie in April 1976. When SAC sought to use SR-71 s to monitor the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Britain declined to allow the airplanes to operate from RAF Mildenhall out of concern that Arab oil producing nations would retaliate. Instead, GIANT REACH missions over the Middle East in 1973 and 1974 were flown from Griffiss AFB and later Seymour Johnson AFB, NC, making for 11-hour flights with six total refuelings. Additional SR-71 missions over the Middle East included flights over Libya in 1986 after Operation EL DORADO CANYON. Four ‘butt-buster’ sorties from Kadena AB to the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1988 demonstrated the continuing value of the SR-71 but could not have happened without aerial refueling. Peripheral missions continued from Kadena AB and RAF Mildenhall, especially over the Barents Sea and Baltic Sea.

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For all its glamour, mystique, and operational capability, the days of the SR-71 were numbered. Its lack of digital sensors and real-time data downlink limited its effectiveness, and the cost to maintain and operate the airplane and its dedicated fleet of KC-135Qs grew commensurately. With national intelligence agencies relying increasingly on satellites and with senior USAF — especially SAC —commanders pursuing other budget priorities, there was little chance of a long-term reprieve. The program ended in 1990, and the SR-71s were placed in flyable storage or seconded to NASA. An effort to reinstate the SR-71 program came, surprisingly enough, from the US Navy, which sought to station two SR-71s at RAF Mildenhall to track Russian ballistic missile submarines (`boomers’) in the Barents and their home port at Polyarny Naval Base. On Sep. 1994 the US Congress voted to restore funding to SR-71 operations. Relying upon NASA’s operational research SR-71s for training, six former SR-71 crewmembers formed a new detachment in 1995 for an airplane without a mission but with $100 million in funding. Aerial refueling for the newly reactivated SR-71 fleet came primarily from KC-10s, however, not KC-135Qs or KC-135Ts. Interestingly enough, the SR-71 became embroiled in a 1998 US Supreme Court case when the court ruled that US President Bill Clinton had acted unconstitutionally in October 1997 when he used a line-item veto to eliminate all funding for the SR-71. Nonetheless, money for the SR-71 dried up and the program ended a second time in 1998.

The end of the SR-71 did not mean the end of the KC-135Q. In early 1990 there were indications that some of the KC-135Qs would be relegated to AMARG. The rest would lose their special electronic equipment and fuel tanks, be converted into KC-135Es or KC-135Rs, and be distributed to other SAC or ANG and AFRES refueling units, there to join KC-135As, KC-135Es, and other KC-135Rs in support of contingency and SIOP commitments. None of the KC-135Qs were stored at the Boneyard, but beginning in 1993 the 54 remaining KC-135Qs received CFM56 engines and were redesignated KC-135Ts. The last to be converted was 58-0099, which departed Fairchild AFB, Washington on Sep. 29, 1995.

The KC-135Q Story, Part Three: Refueling ’Black’ Aircraft

Known KC-135Q missions after the demise of the SR-71 were varied and interesting. One was as dedicated transports for JP-7 fuel. Like the SR-71, the U-2 also used JP-7, and the need to carry this exotic fuel to remote locations in support of U-2R operations made the KC-135Q well suited as a highly mobile ground-based fuel storage tank. It was widely believed that KC-135Qs were the primary source of JP-7 for U-2R operations from Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, although official reports showed this was undertaken by KC-10s and C-141s, not KC-135Qs.

Refueling the Lockheed F-117 also become a duty for the KC-135Q, although this is not believed to be due to any special air refueling requirement on the part of the F-117. Rather, KC-135Q crews were familiar with the many sensitive refueling procedures required in the type of operations the F-117 undertook. Like its SR-71 stablemate from Lockheed, the F-117 retired while the KC-135Ts continued flying. Perhaps the most intriguing role for the KC-135Q was a repeated, but never verified, 1990 association with an unidentified and highly classified ‘black’ aircraft.

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Reports of KC-135Qs flying with diamond-shaped airplanes from Beale AFB, occasionally in conjunction with two F-117s, continued to surface. The KC-135Q has also been associated with the 1990 BLACK HORSE program, a single-stage to orbit research effort that never left the drawing board. This tangential association with reconnaissance — real or hypothetical — is typical of previous KC-135Q operations. ‘Q-crews’ have always worked in an undefined world. An integral part of the reconnaissance mission, their shoulder patch boasted of being part of ‘Team Recce’, along with the SR-71 and the U-2. Still, they were not part of the reconnaissance community, particularly as viewed by some of their RC-135 counterparts who, on a shoulder patch, provided a stinging and impromptu spelling lesson with the reminder that ‘There are no ‘Qs’ in ‘Reconnaissance’.

Former SR-71 pilot Rich Graham and aviation historian Paul Crickmore have ably recounted the storied history of the A-12 and SR-71. Suffice to say that for all the tests and evaluation flights, the overflight missions of North Vietnam, North Korea, the Middle East, Nicaragua, the peripheral sorties over the Barents and Baltic Seas, the many record-setting flights, and the final days with NASA, the role of the KC-135Q was absolutely essential to the capability and legacy of the Lockheed ‘Blackbird’.

The KC-135Q Story, Part Three: Refueling ’Black’ Aircraft
Two 4450th Tactical Group F-117As refueling from KC-135 tanker and an A-7D chase plane Nevada. Note the aircraft in the for ground with the grey/black paint, this is the first F-117, 780. This photo dates from about 1984.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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