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REFUELING AIRCRAFT in mid-air is now routine with air forces around the world. Its history, though, is a combination of military methodology and publicity stunt bravado. A Sirius XM “Radio Classics” program, one of the 1950s Inheritance series, piqued my interest; my aviation books amplified on this.
Two U.S. Army Air Corps Airco DH-4B biplanes performed the first mid-air refueling on June 27, 1923, over Rockwell Field, San Diego. Two months later, this proof of concept led to an endurance record set by a trio of DH-4Bs, two tankers and one being refueled, the latter remaining aloft for more than 37 hours with nine aerial refuelings.
In October 1923, the same crews achieved a non-stop DH-4 flight from Sumas, Washington, on the Canadian border, to San Diego, California. This publicity tour of almost 1400 miles had refuelings over Eugene, Oregon, and Sacramento, California.
See www.wp.me/p2ETap-RR for another noteworthy DH-4 adventure.
The Sirius XM “Radio Classics” program “Flight to Nowhere” celebrated the 1929 flight of the Question Mark, an Atlantic-Fokker C-2A aircraft so named in response to those asking, “How long can you stay up there?”
The Question Mark received its fuel and other supplies from a pair of Douglas C-1 biplanes. The C-1, by the way, was a later version of the Douglas World Cruisers (see www.wp.me/p2ETap-vh for that adventure).
The Question Mark flew with two pairs of pilots/flight engineers, Major Carl A. Spaatz, Captain Ira C. Eaker, 1st Lt. Harry A. Halverson, 2nd Lt. Elwood R. Quesada, and mechanic Sgt. Roy W. Hooe.
The C2-A carried 192 gallons of fuel in a pair of wing tanks. Two more 150-gal. tanks were installed within the cargo cabin of the Question Mark, with a hatch in its roof to admit the refueling hose and other supplies. One of Sgt. Hooe’s responsibilities was transmitting the fuel, by hand pump, from these fuselage tanks out to the wing tanks. Another was to crawl out on catwalks to perform in-flight maintenance to the three engines.
The Question Mark carried no radio (considered unreliable in the era). Communications depended on flags, flares, weighted message bags and notes tied to supply lines—or chalked on the fuselages of support fighters painted black and known as “blackboard planes.”
At 7:26 a.m. on New Years Day 1929, the Question Mark took off from what’s now Van Nuys Airport. Before the day ended, the Question Mark buzzed the 15th Annual Rose Bowl football game.
This game between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the California Golden Bears may be remembered for the hapless Cal center picking up a fumble and running 65 yards in the wrong direction, almost to his own end zone.
Highpoints aboard the Question Mark were air-dropped New Years Day turkey dinners prepared by Van Nuys churchwomen.
Refueling occurred either over Van Nuys or at the turnaround point over Rockwell Field in San Diego, about 110 miles away. Several of the 37 refuelings were at night.
For almost a week, the Question Mark droned on, cruising at around 80 mph and 5000 ft., refueling within 20 to 30 ft. of its support aircraft. Weather caused five detours into the Imperial Valley east of the San Diego, one more around Oceanside on the coast.
On the afternoon of January 7, the left engine seized with a pushrod failure. Sgt. Hooe did his catwalk routine, but could do no more than immobilize the spinning prop with a rubber hook.
The Question Mark landed at Van Nuys at 2:06 p.m., January 7, 1929, after a flight of 150 hours, 40 minutes and 14 seconds.
This record didn’t last for long. Within a year, there were more than 40 other attempts (mostly by privateers). Nine bettered the Question Mark, one of them remaining aloft for more than 420 hours.
But it was the Question Mark that showed the way. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013
I went to high school with a grandson of Fred Key, one of the privateers you mention. Fred and his brother, Al, circled the Meridian, Miss. airfield (now called Key Field) for just over 653 hours in a Curtiss Robin, which is now on display at the Smithsonian. There is a small entry in Wikipedia on “The Flying Keys” if you are curious. The effort is credited for creating a refueling shut off valve so that fuel would not spray when the hose was disconnected.
My friend was quite fond of telling stories about his grandfather including one in which he reportedly pulled his B-24 Liberator into a full loop to escape enemy attack. I never could verify this, however, including the other one about the shrunken head the man obtained in Africa. But as with many pilots and their stories, half is a lot of BS. And as one old Vietnam pilot friend told me, “Ah, but you don’t know which half”.
Nice reading, Dennis, as usual.