Early in the morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel to reunify with South Korea. Far East Air Force fighter and attack aircraft are forced to leave South Korea when Kim il-Sung’s Army pushes the US and Korean forces into the Pusan Pocket in southern Korea. US jet fighters retrograded to bases across Japan, limiting their range and decreasing their loiter times over North Korea carrying heavy bomb loads. No US fighter had the legs to reach the North Korean capital of Pyongyang without additional fuel. The Far East Air Force needed better methods to move attack aircraft farther north. FEAF called for refueling help and Strategic Air Command KB-29 tankers headed east. Two types of KB-29 refueling tankers departed the States for Japan; drogue equipped KB-29Ms and boom equipped KB-29Ps. To overcome distance US fighters faced traveling to North Korean targets, six additional Looped-Hose equipped KB-29M tankers traveled to FRL’s Tarrant Rushton facility in Great Britain for retrofitting with hose systems ending in a drogue basket. Fighters needed a quick modification to mate with the new KB-29 drogues. FRL had the engineering answer.
Talking with FRL engineers, Air Material Command at Wright-Patterson modified external fuel tanks with refueling probes mounted on Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars, Republic F-84E Thunderjets, and North American F-86 Sabers. AMC plumbed external fuel tanks for refueling with a two-foot long pipe and probe welded to the front of each wing tank. Probes do not connect to aircraft internal fuel systems, only the external tanks refill. The only drawback of external tank refueling is a cumbersome process for maintaining aircraft stability. Mounting external fuel tanks on wingtips caused lateral instability due to the out-of-balance condition by wingtip tanks holding 1600 to 1800 pounds. Rejoining on a drogue equipped KB-29M, pilots plugged into the drogue filling one wingtip tank half full. Disconnecting, the pilot then plugged the opposite wingtip tank into the drogue refilling it full. Once full, the pilot plugged the half-empty tank into the drogue again, filling it to capacity.
Early morning of 6 July 1951, three RF-80A Shooting Star reconnaissance fighters departed Taegu Air Base South Korea for North Korea. Their combat radius was a short 330 nautical miles even with wingtip fuel tanks. The three RF-80s were tasked to photograph targets more than 210 miles away, granting only 100 miles of coverage. One Air Materiel Command KB-29M recently retrofitted with an FRL drogue system left Yokota Air Base Japan tasked to meet with any aircraft requiring fuel. Rendezvousing east of Wonsan North Korea, the RF-80s plugged into the KB-29’s streaming drogue topping off each external tank. The RF-80s reset their 330 nautical mile combat radius just miles off North Korea’s east coast, like starting the mission completely over in a new jet. Disconnecting from the drogue and turning West at 18,000 feet, the three RF-80s spread across North Korea, photographing targets attacked by fighters and bombers, and discovering new targets in the process.
Air refueling stretched the range, increased payload, and lengthened endurance of combat aircraft across North Korea. Korean Air Force Commander’s requested more air refueling assets in theater. KB-29Ms equipped with a Boom refueling system showed up months later. The F-84G came off the assembly line with a refueling receptacle in the left wing, Additional KB-29s were sent to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Japan.
All of our coalition partners understood the significance of air refueling at the end of the Korean War. In May of 1954, Strategic Air Command released a request for it’s first jet powered tanker. The KC-135 LOST the competition, coming in third to the Lockheed L-193. But Lockheed could not get the L-193 off paper so General Curtis LeMay bought 732 Boeing KC-135s.