Flying KC-97s in Strategic Air Command


The Last Operational Flight of Humpty Two Zero  

(A slightly fictionalized account of a KC-97 refueling mission)

David K. Vaughan

This is a story about a crew, an airplane, and a mission. The crew, my crew; the airplane, a Boeing KC-97G; the mission, refueling. It was originally a navigation mission, but five minutes after completing carefully filled out paperwork, the squadron operations officer came running up with tears in his eyes and gave us fifteen minutes of the most heart-rending story ever heard by man. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but these were the highlights: “5X crew,” “their boom operator has an appointment with the base veterinarian that can’t be broken,” “you’re the only crew available,” “Mother, God, and Country,” and, finally, “It’s an order; do it!” So, three hours later, we finished flight planning for the refueling mission.

The next morning was cool, brisk, and clear. After finishing the last of a hurriedly brewed pot of coffee, I threw my flight gear in my second-hand Lark convertible and buzzed off to Base Ops. There I met the AC and the Nav. After careful consideration, we decided that we could reach the ARCP on time if the Nav could cut the nav leg short; if we could be cleared through two or three restricted areas; if the winds didn’t get any stronger; and if ARTC didn’t lose our clearance. The usual concerns.

After leaving the required paperwork at Base Ops, we proceeded to the squadron, gathered up the flight engineer and boom operator and boarded the crew bus to the flight line. After we loaded our gear and the AC gave the mission briefing, we went our separate ways to complete our preflight inspections. While the AC hauled the steering column back and forth inside the cockpit, I leaned out through the co-pilot’s window to watch the results. I visually checked to ensure that my half of the airplane was present for duty. As I pulled back inside the cockpit, the AC vigorously turned the yoke of the control column, checking left aileron up, right aileron down, which meant, of course, that I caught the co-pilot’s microphone button square in the seat of my flying suit.

“Sorry about that, Co-pilot,” he said with a smile.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I think I dropped the water jug on your flight lunch.”

He winced, then blew the flap warning horn in my ear, so I told him it was his turn to turn the rudder trim. The rest of the preflight went smoothly. I checked the radios, inserted the necessary VHF crystals, and tuned the ADF to the local country music station. The final step on my personal preflight checklist was to pour myself a cup of coffee from the coffee jug and go outside for a smoke. I looked at my watch. Best time yet.

I went down the crew entry door and stepped onto the ramp. There, sitting around in a circle like a bunch of Indians at a powwow, were the AC, Nav, flight engineer, boom operator, and two crew chiefs, all on their second cigarette.

“What took you so long, Copilot?”

I sighed slowly. Copilots are always last to finish preflight. The engineer handed me a cigarette.

“Have a seat, RO,” said the AC. “I hear the Air Force is finally going to give copilots a radio operator’s secondary AFSC.”

His idea of a joke. Radio operators were an essential crew member on bombers and cargo aircraft during World War II. But though that war had ended some years ago, some of the aircraft in the Air Force inventory still flying were relics of that era. The KC-97 was little more than a double-decker B-29.

“Okay, AC, but just remember what happened the last time you handled the radios—when I flew that GCA last week.”

His smile faded slightly.

“If I hadn’t called tower on Bravo and declared VFR, we’d still be on downwind,” I said.

The only radio switch the AC left on after takeoff was the ADF. Throughout the flight it would invariably be tuned to the nearest country music station. The AC was bighearted about his music: the overhead speaker was never off.
The supervisor of flying drove up in the squadron’s 1949 station wagon, cautiously skirting the few remaining ‘97s. He and the AC started telling lies about “over at the O-Club the other night,” and I turned back to look at our small number of KC-97s.  They were squatting quietly in the golden light of the sunrise. The patchwork patterns of cockpit windows reflected the light blue of the morning sky. A maintenance crew towed a ’97 by us in the direction of the wash rack. It rolled heavily by, strangely quiet as it moved. As it was being positioned in the wash rack, I wondered how many scrubbings it had endured; how many trips it had made to the far north or across the Atlantic or Pacific; how many alert tours it had seen. For how many weeks had it sat in the July heat or January snow with a bellyful of gas, waiting for the horn to blow? Was it the bird in which our crew had made a heavy weight takeoff at five o’clock on a foggy morning for a max effort ORI? Or had that been the airplane that sat silently before me now, a winged Buddha on Baker Seven.

“Hey, Co-pilot,” said the boomer, “Look at those bald tires. That bird must be next for the boneyard.”

We threw the remains of our cold coffee on the ramp and stepped on board to start the engines. The crew chief counted blades, and the engineer started all four engines without a backfire, which made him happy. That meant he didn’t have to buy the beer when the mission ended.

Taxying out to the runup area was uneventful, except for ground control’s clever comment about not being able to see us for “all that blue smoke,” and were we on fire?

“Say again, ground, you’re coming in garbled,” I responded.

Runup also was no problem. The clearance came through on time, and we pulled up to the hold line. I called the tower and said we were ready to roll.

“Roger,” was the reply. “Humpty Two Zero, cleared for takeoff.”

“What?” said the engineer. “No gooney bird on short final? No T-bird with minimum fuel?”

“Hard to believe,” agreed the AC as he steered the aircraft onto the active runway. “Okay, Co-pilot, you make the takeoff,” he said.

I nodded, grabbed a handful of throttles, and shoved them forward. The engineer frantically pulled on the throttles in an effort to keep the engines from overboosting, and I relaxed my stiff-armed grip. As usual, whenever I made the takeoff, the AC gave a hurried “sixtyknotsnow!” call at about 83 knots. The Nav, however, was familiar with our high degree of crew coordination, so I knew he had hacked his watch at the correct time when the 60-knot mark floated by on my airspeed indicator.

“S one, S two, now,” yelled the AC.

“Airborne!” I yelled, and hauled the yoke back. Then followed the normal after takeoff routine: gear up, engineer’s throttles, flaps up, METO power, ADI off, autopilot on, coffee black.

“You got it. Wake me up at orbit,” said the AC, as he turned off his UHF, turned on his ADF (Hot damn!), tilted his seat back, and securely fastened the instrument training hood over his eyes. By level-off altitude his breathing was synchronized with the engine RPM.

“Hard to believe he can snore at 2100 RPM,” I said, turning to the engineer.

“Yeah,” agreed the engineer, “but the phenomenal part is that coming back from refueling he’s at 1900 RPM.”

“Walk around complete,” said the Boomer over interphone.
I turned to gaze at the instruments and soon became engrossed in the intricacies of our fascinating instrument departure. After a while I realized that someone was calling me. Or, to be accurate, someone was calling our aircraft call sign.

“Humpty Two Zero, where are you?”

Center was calling, but my unthinking reply could have been more professional.

“Here,” I said. Ten thousand feet.”

“Where?” asked Center.

“Ahhhhh . . .” I said.

“Squawk flash,” said Center.

“Ah, Rog,” I said. I pushed the switch.

“No contact,” said Center.

“Ah, rog,” I said.

“Try again,” said Center.

Then I saw that the IFF switch was off. How did that happen? I turned it on, waited a count of three, and pushed the ident button again.

“Okay, Humpty Two Zero, in radar contact.”

“Ah, rog,” I said.

I looked around, hoping the flight engineer hadn’t been paying attention to the radio conversation. But he had. He gave me a wry smile.

The flight wore gradually on. Our flight planning was having its usual luck; the only cloud deck in the sky was at our altitude of ten thousand feet. As we made our way in and out of the fleecy white stuff, it suddenly occurred to me that that the anti-icing and de-icing apparatus should perhaps be turned on.

“Hey, Engineer . . .” I began, turning around.

With a mouthful of his ham and cheese flight lunch sandwich, he gestured with a thumb at the overhead control panel. All of the icing prevention switches were on. He gave me a wry smile.

Mere hours later, as we approached the designated refueling area, I called Center.

Center: “Altimeter 28.98, Two Zero. Your receiver’s waiting.”
I gave a call to our receiver. A voice replied, loud and clear: “Where have you been, Two Zero?”

“Well, ah . . .” I said.

“Rendezvous time was sixteen-fifteen Zulu, wasn’t it?” demanded a stern, field-grade voice.

“Well, sir, we were told sixteen-fifty,” said I.

“Sixteen-fifty?” said the field-grade voice. “Looks like your outfit has a scheduling problem.”

“Yes sir,” I said resignedly. “What’s your position?”

“About a half mile off your left wing. We’ll do a 360-degree turn and come in behind you.”


Soon we were ready for contact. The AC woke up, turned off the ADF Radio, and jiggled the controls.

“I’ve got it,” he said.

The receiver came steadily in, and the tail of the ’97 began to rise. The receiver called for a refueling airspeed of 205 knots. The AC held 200 knots as the receiver came closer. I knew from experience that he was counting on gaining another five knots or so from the gentle goosing action of the receiver.

“What’s your airspeed, Two Zero?”

I looked at the airspeed indicator; 200 on the nose.

“Two-oh-five,” I said.

I could feel the field-grade brain waves pulsing around me. “Bull,” they seemed to say.

The only way these old birds could fly at 205 knots was to put the nose down, and the AC was trying to avoid that. During a heavy weight refueling we often had to descend well below ten thousand feet to give the receiver the speeds it needed. I could remember descending to below five thousand feet before our offload was complete. This was a pretty low altitude for a jet bomber, and the bomber pilot would have to use up a good amount of fuel to regain a reasonable cruising altitude again. The whole concept of using KC-97s to refuel jet bombers was, in my opinion, laughable.

Fortunately, our scheduled offload on this mission was relatively light, just a practice refueling with minimal offload. The refueling track was clear. Not a storm cloud in the sky. This was perfect weather for a refueling when the pressure was off. During a CEG visit or an ORI, however, it was always a different story: night, weather, turbulence, radios not working, a sky full of airplanes, a big offload, fuel pumps that wouldn’t work. No problems now, though.

Well, almost.

“Humpty Two Zero, this is your receiver. It looks like you have just sprung a leak.”

Mild panic.

The AC, flight engineer, and I quickly looked at each other. What could be leaking? It couldn’t be fuel, could it? Maybe hydraulic fluid?

“What does it look like?” I asked. “Where is it coming from?”

“Looks like a clear liquid. It’s hitting the right side of our cockpit. Looks like it’s coming from the underside of your fuselage, in the front, just right of center.”

“Roger.”  No fuel at that location, unless it leaked from somewhere else.  Maybe it’s from the central oil tank.  The AC and I both turned to look at the Engineer.

The flight engineer unstrapped. “I’ll try to see what it is,” he said. He stood up and turned around, just in time to bump into the Nav, who had opened the crew latrine door and stepped out into the center of the cockpit.

He saw us all looking at him. “What?” he said.  “Everything come out all right?” asked the Engineer.

“Yeah.  Why?” asked the Nav.

“The leak seems to have stopped,” called the receiver.

“Yeah, we found it,” the AC replied.

“Say again?”

One of our crewmembers was giving the relief tube an inflight check,” the AC responded.

There was a brief silence, then: “Thanks . . . a . . . LOT!”

We proceeded down the refueling track with the boom operator giving an unusually small number of corrective instructions to our receiver. The signal of Boonies VOR faded and the signal of Northwoods VOR grew stronger. Then, after the engineer determined that the appropriate amount of gas had been pumped and I had clocked them on the boom for the appropriate amount of time, the Nav announced, “Two minutes to end AR.”

“Roger,” replied the receiver.

“By the way,” called the Nav, “your initial contact for the refueling was 80 nautical miles, wasn’t it?”

A slight pause, and then came the response from a different voice on the receiver’s aircraft: “Uhhh . . . Yeah, yeah, 80 nautical miles, that’s right!”

“Thought so,” said the Nav. “Okay, at end AR.”

“Rog,” replied the receiver. “Disconnect on my count of three, one, two, three.”

Thunk! Went the boom, as it disconnected from the receiver, and then thunk! again as the boom operator stowed the boom in the up and locked position.

“Offload report,” said the AC.

“Offload report,” said the Nav over the radio, “as briefed.”

“Rog,” said our receiver. “Thanks a lot, Two Zero. You were a good platform.”

“Glad to have been of service. Don’t forget your green stamps.”

We held course on track and watched as our receiver climbed out past us off our right wing. He turned gradually to the right and disappeared from sight. We soon passed the Northwoods VOR.

Back on Center frequency, we leveled at thirteen thousand feet, lighter now that we had passed gas, confirmed our blip on their radar scope, and advised Center of the last known heading of our receiver. I warned them that the navigator was going to try a little daytime celestial navigation, and would they please keep an eye on us.

The trip back was uneventful. The AC bagged out at 1900 RPM, the boomer read a pocket western, the engineer began to work on his second sandwich, the Nav plotted celestial fixes with the radar set, and I tried to outguess a typically erratic autopilot. After three or four more hours of flying time, the hazy outline of Home Plate AFB appeared in the distance. I turned the autopilot off and kicked the rudder, waking up the crew.

The AC glared as he woke up. He retuned the ADF, shook the controls, and said, “I’ve got it. Give radar approach a call and see if they’re on their work break.”

Surprisingly, they answered our call immediately.

“Roger, Two Zero, turn right to a heading of two eight zero, descend and maintain 2500 feet, radar vector to downwind.”

“280,” I said, “and 2500 feet.”

“Match landings for the beer,” said the AC. Nodding agreement, I guessed the old boy would never learn.

“Two Zero, turn left to two one zero, maintain 2500 feet, you are now on downwind.”

I repeated the controller’s instructions.

“This air is too smooth to be true,” said the AC. “Ask what the winds are.”

“Winds light and variable,” said the controller.

“Fantastic,” said the AC.

“Humpty Two Zero, turn left to a heading of one six five, maintain 2500, dogleg to final, cockpit check should be complete.”

“165, 2500 feet, gear down and locked,” I replied.

“Humpty Two Zero, this is your final controller, turn left to one two zero, how do you read?”

“Left to 120, read you loud and clear.”

“Maintain heading 120 and 2500 feet. On final approach, expect descent in one mile.”


“Controller training in progress.”


“Radar occasionally inoperative last half of final approach.”

“So what else is new,” said the AC. Fortunately, the visibility was good and we had the field in sight.

“Begin descent.”

The AC flew the approach in admirable fashion, but the time of reckoning would arrive about 500 feet down the runway. I sat quietly chuckling to myself as the AC leveled slightly as the end of the runway passed beneath us. I waited for the moment of truth. And waited. And waited some more.

“AC, this is the Boomer. We’re on the ground now.”

“Thanks, Boomer. I thought we might be.”
Ten minutes later, on downwind, left hand on the throttles, right hand on the yoke, teeth gritted, steely-eyed, I surveyed the situation. It looked bad. The AC’s landing had been good. It would be tough to beat. But I could do it. I would push on! On to victory!

“Easy does it, Co-pilot. You’re overboosting,” said the engineer.

Final approach went smoothly, except when the AC suggested I should put the gear down and set the flaps, but other than that, no problem.

I glided in over the approach lights, skillfully dipping the left wing and applying bottom rudder to correct for the unusually strong crosswind that had suddenly appeared. I flared and waited for the boomer to tell me that we were on the ground.

Ka-smash! (Bounce) Wham! (Bounce) (Bounce) Whunk! The violent bouncing finally settled into a steady vibration as we rolled to the far end of the runway.

“I give, Co-pilot,” said the boomer. “Please don’t beat me up any more.”

“I believe I have just lived through my first Class 26 landing,” said the Nav.

“It was your turn to buy the beer anyway,” said the engineer.

“Not bad for an OJT copilot,” said the AC. “Who says the Air Force doesn’t hire the hopelessly incapable?”

“Will you need a tow truck?” asked the tower.

I busied my self with my checklist as we taxied in toward the ramp, parked, and shut down.
After the maintenance debriefing, where my witty crewmembers made clever remarks about conducting a thorough inspection of the landing gear, the AC and I proceeded to the secure confines of Humpty Control where we found the Master Controller hard at work, cigar in mouth, putter in hand, practicing for the difficult greens on the back nine of the base’s golf course.

“As briefed, old dad,” said the AC.

“Ah, Rog, understand, as briefed,” said old dad. Cigar smoke curled around his head as his squinting eyes zeroed in on the metal cup that sat at the far end of a small rug. Blap! went his putter against the ball, which rolled over the carpet and into the cup, straight and true.

“Good work, Major,” I said.

“You bet,” he acknowledged.

“Looks like you’ve got the back nine figured out.”

“You bet. No sweat. Now if I can just talk them into carpeting Number Sixteen . . .”

“Well, we’ve got to go drink some beer,” said the AC.

“Roger, understand.” He paused briefly. “Congratulations, by the way.”


“You bet. You have just flown the squadron’s last refueling mission. No more refueling missions—all canceled. Good work, men. Now, let’s see. Number Seventeen slants right. Charlie”—here he gestured at a young airman standing nearby—“help me roll up the rug over here, will you?”

Outside, as we stood in the parking lot discussing the news, the engineer said, “No more refuelings. How about that! What kind of flying do we do now?”

“Fun flying?” suggested the Nav.

“Since our scheduled operational missions are over,” the AC said, “our last missions will be boneyard runs. The Air Guard may pick up a few aircraft, but the rest of our birds will soon be sitting around the Air Force’s big parking lot in the desert.”

We looked out at the ramp. The few rows of remaining KC-97s rested silently in the russet light of sunset, looking unemotionally towards the west with all of their many windows. Overhead, in the still, clear air of the early evening, I counted seven separate sets of contrails, and it occurred to me that the 97s might be looking forward to just sitting around and thinking about the old days.

“You know, I’m going to miss flying that old beast,” I said.

“Aw, Co-pilot, you’ve had too much beer,” said the boomer.

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe it’s the beer.”


I wrote this story in November and December of 1965, during the last weeks of the existence of the 44th Air Refueling Squadron, which was located at Selfridge Air Force Base, near Mt. Clemens, Michigan. I had been a copilot in KC-97s for two years, since I had graduated from pilot training in the autumn of 1963. The tired, old, antique ‘97s were scheduled to be retired at least two years earlier, but the Cuban Crisis of October, 1962, had caused the Air Force to keep them flying until the demands of the war in Vietnam overcame concerns about a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and the ‘97s (and their bomber counterparts, the B-47s) were sent to the Air Force’s aircraft boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. Because the KC-97s were being phased out of the active duty units of the Strategic Air Command (some ‘97s were modified for use by Air National Guard units), I could afford to be somewhat casual (and occasionally silly) in my account.

When I wrote the story, I was waiting for my entry date into C-130 school, located at that time at Sewart AFB, Tennessee, east of Nashville. Now that I was going to be flying C-130s, I felt that I was at last going to be joining the real Air Force, not the artificial, make-believe world of Strategic Air Command. One of my last actions before I left Selfridge was to mail the story to the editors of Combat Crew, the magazine of Strategic Air Command, the official monthly publication of SAC. To my surprise, the editors at Combat Crew printed it almost exactly as I had written it (one episode was omitted; guess which episode). It appeared in the January 1967 issue. By that time, I had left my short, one-year stay in the 347th Tactical Airlift Squadron, at Dyess Air Force Base, Abilene, Texas, and was on my way to join the 345th Tactical Airlift Squadron, located at Ching Chuan Kang Air Base, west of Taichung, Taiwan. My complimentary copy of the January 1967 issue of Combat Crew caught up with me there. The editors had done a nice job of laying out my story, including four photos of KC-97 activities.

This was the “About the Author” background box that accompanied the article:

This tale of the KC-97 is something that occurred to 1st Lt Vaughan during the phaseout of SAC’s 97 outfits. He wrote it with the thought that perhaps it could be of interest not only from a nostalgic point of view but also as having current application since some of the policies described could apply to present KC-135 and B-52 operations. At the time, Lieutenant Vaughan was a copilot in the 44th Air Refueling Squadron; subsequently [previously?] he served with the 307th ARS, stationed at Selfridge AFB. During the years that he was a combat crew member, he came to respect and admire the old KC-97 and called it a “very forgiving aircraft.” He said, “I’m sure I learned as much about flying in this man’s Air Force from the KC-97 as I did from the T-37 and T-38 of pilot training.” Lieutenant Vaughan has since completed checkout in TAC’s C-130 and has been assigned to the 347th Troop Carrier Squadron at Dyess. His story, he points out, refers directly to the peculiarities and special features of the KC-97, and needless to say, any similarity between people and events in this story and real people or actual events is absolutely coincidental.

Notes to the story:

When I wrote this story, I was confident that all of the acronyms and operational expressions it contained would be understood by its intended readers: the aircrew members of SAC’s KC-135 and B-52 squadrons, many of whom would probably have flown KC-97s or B-47s earlier in their flying careers. But now, over fifty years after it was written, those terms need some explanation. Rather than use footnotes, I have provided explanatory details below. These are listed in the order in which they appear in the story.

Humpty Two Zero: the radio call sign of our particular aircraft on this particular mission; unit aircraft call signs changed periodically, at least once a month

5X crew: A designation for a specially qualified flight crew

AC: aircraft commander

ARCP: air refueling control point; entry into the air refueling track

ARTC: air route traffic control

ADF: automatic direction finder; it could be tuned to AM radio stations

RO: radio operator

AFSC: air force specialty code; a number that identified your primary job in the Air Force

GCA: ground controlled approach

Bravo: a special VHF radio frequency for the tower operators; pre-set into our radio sets

VFR: visual flight rules

ORI: operational readiness inspection; SAC’s method of testing a unit’s ability to respond to a simulated emergency by launching its aircraft

Baker Seven: a designated parking spot on the ramp

Guard Channel: a radio frequency designed to be used exclusively for aircraft experiencing an emergency situation

Overboosting: pushing the engine throttles beyond safe limits; overboosting could cause damage to individual cylinders in the old reciprocating engines which powered the KC-97

METO Power: maximum except take off

ADI: attitude director indicator

Orbit: “wake me up at orbit”: when the tanker would enter a holding pattern, waiting for the receiver to move into position prior to starting down the refueling track

UHF: ultra high frequency radio

VHF: very high frequency radio

RPM: revolutions per minute

Squawk Flash: if the pilot pushed a button on the IFF panel, the unit would send a brief electronic impulse which would light up the controller’s radar screen, showing the aircraft’s position.  The system (or something like it) is still in existence today.

IFF: identification friend of foe; a recent technological device designed to make it easier for controllers to follow the movements of individual aircraft

CEG: combat evaluation group (visit); similar to an ORI

VOR: very high frequency omnirange radio signal, used for navigation; in this case, used to mark the beginning and ending of the refueling track (Boonies VOR, Northwoods VOR)

AR: aerial refueling

Celestial Navigation: navigating by using a hand held (or mounted) sextant to determine one’s position by reference to celestial objects (the sun during daytime; the moon and stars at night)

OJT: on the job training