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Boeing’s First KC-135 Served In Many Non-Tanker Roles

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Story by Ken Kula with Nicole Cloutier

The first Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker was delivered to the U.S. Air Force at Boeing’s Renton, Washington plant in January, 1956. Carrying a serial of 55-3118, the first production KC-135A was named the “City of Renton”, and christened with a bottle of local river water. Interestingly, the first jet-powered aerial tanker was delivered at the same time as the final KC-97 propeller-driven tanker was delivered from the same factory.

The first jet was never fully equipped with an aerial refueling system, and was never assigned to a traditional air refueling squadron. In fact, this jet remained with Boeing for testing purposes through 1961. Although the somewhat similar civilian Boeing “Dash 80”/B-707 airliner had blazed a trail with its thorough test process just months earlier, there was some military-specific equipment that had to be added to the basic B-707 design – and tested – before the jet would reach full operational capability. The first flight of the KC-135A didn’t occur until August 31, 1956.

There were some initial squawks with the aircraft’s performance, one of which was a rudder flutter issue at high speeds. Others notable problems that surfaced included issues with very cold weather operations, adverse yaw in certain flight envelopes, and controllability of the flying refueling boom at high speeds. ‘3118 was part of this overall test process, and was used by Boeing to test and certify that design fixes actually solved the specific issues reported.

Finally, on January 21, 1961, the “City of Renton” KC-135A airframe was handed over to the Tactical Air Command (TAC), which ordered it to be converted into the first of a series of airborne communication and control aircraft. 55-3118 was transformed into an EC-135K, and became an airborne command post with the latest secure communications equipment. Three KC-135 airframes were converted to this configuration to give the TAC Commander a secure command and control aircraft during wartime. Special Air Missions were added to the EC-135K’s repertoire, although outwardly the aircraft still looked like an ordinary tanker or C-135 transport. Operation Polo, during which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to Pakistan and China in 1971 to secretly kick-start diplomatic relations with China, used 55-3118 as its primary military transport.

A most important duty assignment for 55-3118 was to a squadron which performed “Head Dancer” missions. During tactical deployment of large groups of aircraft, especially when moving fighters across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the role of the 8th Tactical Deployment Control Squadron (or 8 TDCS) was to keep all aircraft (tankers, receivers and other mission assets) under a command and control system while in the air.

An excerpt from an article written by Airman 1st Class David Bernal Del Agua, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs, published June 25, 2014 recalls the mission:
“Our most important mission was escorting fighters,” said retired Lt. Col. Ted Buck. “We flew with squadrons at a time from state side to Vietnam and back.”

“The City of Renton” was retrofitted with bunks, seats, tables, carpeting, soundproofing, and communication equipment after initial testing was complete to fit its new mission.

“Every 90 days we had to spit-shine that plane in the hangars,” said retired Master Sgt. Gene De Forest. “Everyone below captain or master sergeant had to polish. The rule was ‘if you don’t polish, you don’t fly.'”

Command and control was the next mission of 55-3118, it was as a modern satellite for tactical air command.

“We’re talking 45 or 50 years ago,” said Buck. At the time, the capabilities were amazing. We kept radio contact with fighter aircraft no matter where they went. We were very useful and needed.”

In 1982, ‘3118 traded in her quartet of thirsty J57 turbojets for TF33 turbofan power plants, which increased her performance and endurance. Her last duty station was at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, and on October 15, 1996, the forty year old aircraft was retired and sent to McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas to join other aircraft as gate guards.

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McConnell AFB is home to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing, which operates KC-135R variants, which are essentially upgraded, partly rebuilt and re-engined original KC-135As. Having the first KC-135A on site affirms the importance of Boeing’s KC-135s and the Air Force’s refueling mission. The name “City of Renton” has been changed to “The Keeper of the Plains”, in reference to a famous statue in Wichita which was featured on the tails of 22nd ARW jets several decades ago. Original J57 engines, and the highly polished finish have been reapplied to the jet, making her look decades younger.

So, the first ever-produced Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker was never an air refueler, but a command and control and communications relay jet after her first assignment as a test aircraft. Some 640 additional USAF KC-135A tankers were later delivered, changing American air power strategy for the next sixty years and beyond. The first jet still survives, and while still not an aerial tanker, it guards the gates to an important air refueling base.

Remembering LZ 129, the Hindenburg – and the Importance of Naval Air Station Lakehurst

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On May 6, 2017, I attended the memorial service the eightieth anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster at the spot where the Hindenburg crashed at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey. The weather was much like it was that fateful night eighty years ago, overcast, a cool breeze and light rain. For more than 30 years on May 6th, the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society (NHLS) has marked this solemn occasion at the very spot where the Hindenburg’s Gondola came to rest.

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Hangar 1, NAS Lakehurst New Jersey.

The former Naval Air Station (NAS) Lakehurst, once called the ‘Airship Capitol of the World’ is now part of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The base still has four of its iconic hangers from the golden age of rigid and lighter than air airships, which stand as reminders of the bases prominence in the emerging technology in the early days after World War I and into World War II.

So just how did NAS Lakehurst become the ‘Airship Capitol of the World’ and end up tied to the Hindenburg in the annals of history? In 1919, the United States Navy was in need of an airship station. The Acting Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the purchase of the 1700 acres of the former World War I United States Army chemical warfare training facility known as Camp Kendrick. The Navy renamed the facility Naval Air Station Lakehurst and began construction of Hanger One in September of 1919; Hanger One was completed and commissioned on June 28, 1921. The huge building was designed to be able to house two rigid airships at the same time. It is a massive structure at two hundred ninety four meters (nine hundred sixty-four and a half feet) long, one hundred ten meters (almost three hundred sixty one feet) wide and sixty-eight meters (two hundred twenty-three feet) high.

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Inside Hangar 1, 2017.

NAS Lakehurst became the center of rigid airship development for the United States when the Navy stationed three of their four rigid airships there. The USS Shenandoah ZR-1 (constructed in Hanger One), the USS Los Angeles ZR-3 (originally LZ 126) and the USS Akron ZRS-4, the world’s first flying aircraft carrier were all stationed at NAS Lakehurst.

In October 1928, NAS Lakehurst became the first international airport in the United States when the Hindenburg’s sister ship the Graf Zeppelin LZ 127 arrived on the first intercontinental scheduled flight from Friedrichshafen Germany to NAS Lakehurst. Graf Zeppelin would again make history in August 1929 when it began and completed the first around the world flight from NAS Lakehurst.

The Hindenburg was designed and manufactured by Zeppelin Company, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH along Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen Germany. The Zeppelin was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company, Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei. The Airship was named in honor of the late German President Paul von Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg LZ 129 was and still is the largest aircraft ever built at two hundred forty-five meters (almost eight hundred and four feet). It is longer than an Airbus A380-800, Boeing 747-8 and Antonov An-225 placed nose to tail with eleven and a half meters (thirty eight feet) to spare. It was also very fast for its day. The Hindenburg was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in half the time it took the Queen Mary, Normandie and Bremen, the fastest ocean liners of their day. On average, the Hindenburg could cross the Atlantic Ocean in two and half days. It’s fastest crossing from NAS Lakehurst to Frankfurt Germany took only forty three hours and two minutes. However, it was very expensive at four hundred fifty U.S. dollars for a one way flight.

In 1936, NAS Lakehurst was the only place on the east coast of the United States that could shelter the Hindenburg. With no commercial ground crew available, military members were paid one dollar and given a bag lunch to moor the airship.

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Hindenburg model with actual piece of its structure.

On May 6, 1937, on its thirty-fifth and final crossing over the Atlantic Ocean, the Hindenburg encountered thunderstorms which had delayed its arrival by twelve hours. Poor weather conditions continued to be present with thunderstorms reported in the area at 3:43 PM. The airship arrived over NAS Lakehurst at approximately 4:15 PM. The Hindenburg’s Commander, Captain Max Pruss was concerned with the weather conditions, as was NAS Lakehurst’s Commanding Officer, Commander Charles Rosendahl. The Hindenburg flew for several more hours along the coast of New Jersey. By 6:00 PM, conditions at NAS Lakehurst had improved. Commander Rosendahl sent Captain Pruss a message relaying the current conditions which Commander Rosendahl considered suitable for landing. At 6:22PM, Rosendahl radioed Pruss and recommended that he land now. The Hindenburg arrived once again over the field at NAS Lakehurst from the southwest, shortly after 7:00 PM at an altitude of approximately six hundred feet. At 7:08 PM, Rosendahl sent a message to the ship strongly recommending the earliest arrival and landing. The wind was from the east and after passing over the field to observe conditions on the ground, Captain Pruss initiated a wide left turn to fly a descending oval pattern around the north and west of the field, to line up for a landing into the wind.

Suddenly the Hindenburg was being engulfed by fire. The airship pitched up as the aft section struck the ground. In less than forty five seconds, the Hindenburg was consumed by a raging inferno and fell from the sky. The only living survivor of the disaster, Werner Doehner, is now eighty-eight years old and lives in Colorado. He has described that air around him on the ship was on fire. He was eight years old on that trip and traveling with his entire family back from a vacation in Germany. As the airship erupted into fire his mother pushed him and his brother out of an open window. He suffered burns and was hospitalized for three months before being well enough to be transferred to a hospital in New York City for skin grafts. At the memorial service, many spoke about Captain Pruss was praised and compared to modern day heroes for his actions that day. He personally ran into the inferno with no protective gear three separate times rescuing victims. He was badly burned and had to be restrained from entering the wreckage again. His burns were so severe he would be hospitalized for months and require skin grafts as well.

The loss of thirty six lives (thirteen passengers, twenty-two crew members and a single ground crew) did not make the Hindenburg the deadliest disaster involving an airship. The USS Akron ZRS-4 which departed from NAS Lakehurst on April 3, 1933 holds that distinction with seventy-three killed when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off New Jersey during a storm. The Hindenburg is the deadliest in measure of civilian lives lost. What really brings the Hindenburg disaster to the forefront is being the first major disaster that was captured on newsreel. It is remembered because of the famous delayed radio broadcast by Herbert Morrison, who covered the landing for WLS in Chicago. These were later synched and broadcast in a format that was the forerunner of today’s television news.

Perhaps the largest misconception about the Hindenburg is that the hydrogen it used for lift exploded. The Hindenburg caught fire, it did not explode. If the Hindenburg’s two hundred thousand cubic meters (seven million, sixty two thousand cubic feet) of hydrogen had exploded it would have likely killed everyone present and leveled the base’s structures. This year the guest speaker at the memorial was Doctor Horst Schirmer. His father Max was an aerodynamic engineer on the airship. Doctor Schirmer recalled how he flew on the Hindenburg during a test flight over Lake Constance from Friedrichshafen Germany. He described a magnificent airship that was a joy to fly in.

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Actual fabric from the Hindenburg.

After eighty years, despite many theories and investigations, the source of the fire is still undetermined. Many have suggested lightning but during many recorded interviews, Captain Pruss discounted that. He stated that the Hindenburg had been struck by lightning many times, especially during its many voyages near the equator by South America, so this could not have been the cause. The worst damage from lightning the Hindenburg suffered, he stated, was a hole in the bow skin. He believes sabotage was much more likely.

Doctor Schirmer remarked “We will never for sure know what exactly happened, hopefully, it was not sabotage.” He explained that hydrogen needs the right combination of oxygen mixed with it and an ignition source to ignite it. For this reason he believes the hydrogen was slowly leaking and not a sudden massive release. He recalled that the Hindenburg had a new type of propeller installed before this trip. He described the landing and how the Hindenburg’s aft engines were placed into full reverse as it approached the flying moor. Doctor Schirmer described the temperature of the engine gases internally to be near 600 degrees Fahrenheit. As they exited the exhaust pipes, the gases cooled to 500 degrees. At just 10 feet beyond the exhaust pipe they cooled to nearly 300 degrees. Doctor Schirmer theorizes that an oil particle blown from the engine while in full reverse could have been the ignition source to the fire which fell the Hindenburg. He explained how there were vents nearby where the gas and oil particles could have come in contact with each other.

Over the following days both the American and German governments initiated investigations. The Germans salvaged most of the airship and shipped it back to Germany for examination. With the few exceptions of pieces that exist in the Navy Lakehurst and the Lakehurst Historical Society museums, little still exists today. After eight years and numerous advances in science and technology, it is still not definitive in what started the fire that destroyed the Hindenburg. The conclusion that a significant leak of hydrogen prior to the disaster with an unknown ignition source is still the most likely cause of the end of commercial airship aviation.

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In preparing this article I visited the both the Naval Lakehurst Historical Society located in Hanger One aboard Joint Base McGuire – Dix – Lakehurst and the Lakehurst Historical Society located at 300 Center Street Lakehurst NJ. Both contain artifacts from the Hindenburg and were amazing to behold. I highly recommend visiting both and taking the base tour.

Chasing Warbirds at Bradley

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Driving north up I-91 in Connecticut presents some “Targets of Opportunity” if you are hunting for Warbirds. Set the GPS for “Bradley International Airport” (KBDL) north of Hartford and exit at CT-20 then go two miles to CT-75 north. In a mile you will be at the approach lights for Runway 33-15. If the wind is right, pull over to one of the parking lots and watch some of the airliners on final. Proceed up 75 for about two miles and turn left at the orange sign for “New England Air Museum”. At that turn you will be right at the end of Runway 24-6, the main runway at BDL at 9,510 feet, another good spot for inbound traffic. If you then proceed down Perimeter Road a bit you will come to the Connecticut Fire Training Center; if you’re lucky, you will then see them burning down that concrete tower one more time. A little further down the road past the FAA ATC Tower you will come to the entrance to the New England Air Museum (NEAM), home of about 100 restored aircraft. But before you do that, keep going down the road and you will come to the End of Runway 15, ideal for more plane spotting. Drive a little further past FedEx and you will come to the Main Gate for the CT-ANG Air Base, home of the 103rd Airlift Wing, “The Flying Yankees”.

The 103rd has had a long and storied life and recently came back to life again in October of 2013 when the first of eight C-130H “Hercules” transport aircraft arrived. The Hercs re-established the 103rd AW as again being a vital component of the USAF nationwide Tactical Airlift capability and the base is now secure in that new found mission. The Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC) in 2005 decided to close down the flying mission of the 103rd Fighter Wing at Bradley that, at the time, had about 20 assigned A-10 Warthogs on the Ramp. All the Hogs were reassigned by 2008 and the real estate at the 103rd was in real danger of becoming a new private FBO, even with their new ground mission of engine repair. Then in 2008 the Governor, the State Legislature, and the local commercial and residential community protested loudly to the USAF and Congress to reconsider the BRAC order to close the flying mission of the 103rd. The local voices were heard and the Air Force assigned four white C-20A VIP Learjet transport aircraft to the 103rd. And now, minimally as it was, the Wing regained its flying mission and was then called the 103rd Airlift Wing. The C-21’s were in fact an interim solution and the US Air Force had planned to make the 103rd AW into a C-27J Alenia Aermacchi “Spartan” base with at least 8 aircraft. The C-27 looked like a two engine Herc and had great short unimproved runway capability. Then, the Air Force, after spending $567M buying 21 Spartans, abruptly cancelled the C-27J Program. Those planes, already purchased, went to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB to bake in the sun. These planes were later reassigned to the USCG and the US Special Operations Command. Even gloomier, the four C-21 Learjets were reassigned and left Bradley in September of 2013. For a while the ramp at Bradley again had zero aircraft. And again, behind the screens, the Connecticut State Legislature, the Governor and the Connecticut State Adjutant General worked hard to re-establish a flying mission for the 103rd AW at Bradley. And like a Phoenix Rising Out of the Ashes of a Bare Base, by 2014 all eight C-130H Hercules had arrived at Bradley to re-establish its mission as a vital link to the USAF’s Tactical Airlift Mission.

Now, back to the Main Gate at the 103rd AW: Here sit just inside the Main Gate, three beautifully restored Gate Guards that could qualify as Warbirds in our “Warbird Hunt”: an F-102A “Delta Dagger” (0-61264) in air-superiority grey with a blue lightning tail; an A-10 Warthog with a black lightning bolt on the nose with a low-viz grey side background fuselage on a high hard stand; and an F-100D Super Sabre “Hun” (CT-53805) in a light cammo lizard green color scheme.

If you now backtrack for about half a mile you will come again to the entrance to the New England Air Museum (NEAM), home to 100 vintage airplanes. This museum is slowly regaining its position as one of the nation’s premier air museums, and, very similar to the rocky recent history of the nearby CT-ANG 103rd AW, it is coming back from oblivion when in 1979, the museum was nearly totally destroyed when a rogue F-4 tornado cyclone, something you don’t normally see in Connecticut, destroyed nearly every plane and every building that NEAM had in 1979. In those days the museum was located on the opposite side of the Airport along route 75. It was amazing and unfortunate that of all the place to hit around the Bradley area, the tornado squarely hit the Bradley Air Museum, as it was called then, destroying 30 aircraft, nearly the museum’s entire collection of large aircraft, and did major damage to the museums hanger buildings. The tornado struck without warning at 3 PM on October 3, 1979. The storm caused 3 deaths, 500 injuries, was rated an F-4 on the Fujita Scale with 207 to 260 mph winds at the core and caused $442M in property damage ($659M in 2017 USD) and incalculable costs to the 30 rare vintage museum aircraft, all as it traveled along a 11.3 mile south to north path of destruction parallel to Route 75. It hit the Bradley Air Museum literally as a bullseye target. It still ranks as the ninth most destructive tornado in American history.

It was almost the Perfect Storm. The storm actually formed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that morning. This storm was an unusual setup for a significant tornado associated with a warm front near a low pressure center. A thunderstorm cell formed south of Long Island around 10:20 AM and became a supercell some time later after interacting with a surface low pressure center. It turned north as a left-moving supercell, meaning it moved left with respect to the mean atmospheric flow. Left moving super cells are very rare, as cyclonic storms usually turn to the right of a mean low. It was unknown whether this leftward movement was due to an atmospheric iteration or a terrain-induced movement as the storm moved north straight up the Connecticut River Valley. No tornado warnings were issued before the storm struck. This was later determined to be because of missing atmospheric sounding data, although a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 2:57 PM, but very few people received the warning in time. The tornado roughly followed Route 75 just east of the Bradley International Airport directly towards the center of the Air Museum. The Airport’s weather station reported a wind gust of 87 mph a mile away from the Museum as the storm passed. F-4 winds were estimated to be over 150 mph as the tornado hit the center of the Air Museum. A United Airlines flight with 114 passengers on board was attempting to land as the tornado was passing the Airport. The pilot saw the tornado and was able to abort the landing just in time. The tornado then crossed the northern portion of the Airport, where the Bradley Air Museum (NEAM) was located. More than 30 large vintage aircraft displayed on the ground outside were destroyed with many more damaged. The Museum’s large hanger was also rendered unusable. The tornado, with 3 inches of rain and several downbursts continued due north to Westfield 5 miles north of the Massachusetts line. Something not remembered was that the storm destroyed most of the Connecticut Army National Guard’s Aviation Unit (2.Bat/104.Av/B.Co/Det.1/HHC) consisting of about 20 Sikorsky CH- 54B (S-64) “Tarhe” Skycranes and Bell UH-1B Iroquois “Huey’s” all sitting in the open on their ramp just north of the Air Museum on Route 75. In less than 8 minutes the museum grass display area consisting of 30 pristine aircraft was reduced to a pile of aeronautical junk metal. Twenty-three large aircraft were totally destroyed and most of the remaining were severely damaged.

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The outdoor aircraft were literally tossed around like toys. Although many of the 30 large outdoor airplanes were carefully positioned to face towards the northwest into expected prevailing winds to minimize buffeting in the event of more common hurricane force winds, this effort did little in the face of the tornado’s wrath. For example, the largest airplane in the outdoor exhibit, the Douglas C-133, was lifted into the air and dropped on its back, its tail ripped off as if it were paper. Many of the 23 totally destroyed large aircraft could never be replaced because most of the only other examples of their kind are already in other air museums. Four aircraft suffered only minor damage: The Boeing RB-47A; the Douglas A-3; the Martin B-57 and the Vought-Regulus Missile. Four were salvaged: the Grumman E-1; the North American B-25; the Boeing B-29 (“Jack’s Hack”), now the pride of the NEAM and now in its own private hanger); and the Boeing BOMARC Missile. Seven were potentially salvageable (and were later): the Republic RF-84F, Grumman TBM; Lockheed P2V; Lockheed F-104; Boeing B-17; Douglas A-4; and the Convair F-102. Two were questionable: the Grumman HU-16B and the Northrop F-89 (both were fixed and now sit in the NEAM yard!). Very sadly, the following were total losses in October of 1979: Douglas C-54; Lockheed T-33; Douglas C-124; North American F-86; Vought F8U; Sikorsky CH-37; Fairchild C-119; Lockheed Constellation; Douglas C-133; Douglas F4D; Convair T-29; Boeing Vetrol YHC-LA; Sikorsky H-19; and a Convair F-102. As is the case with an air museum, the Air Force and the Navy retain ownership of most military aircraft and those aircraft can be recalled (though unlikely). This was the case with the RB-47 about 10 years ago.

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The Bradley Air Museum indoor facility, an original WW2 Hanger situated north of the outdoor exhibit, fared better. The volunteers and staff on duty at the time of the tornado were unhurt, and most of the 30 additional planes inside only sustained minor damage, but one indoor plane was totally destroyed with falling debris. The hanger was rendered unusable. Literally picking up the pieces, Museum workers assembled the surviving Warbird aircraft into a temporary outdoor exhibit. It wasn’t until 1981 that the museum was able to repair additional airplanes, restore damaged airplanes, and acquire through donations and manpower a new exhibit building, then known as the Civil Aviation Building, that the museum was able to fully reopen to the public on October 2, 1981. Only a few of the large planes were restorable – the Boeing B-29 Superfortress; the B-25 Mitchell and the Boeing RB-47 Stratofortress. The RB-47 has since been acquired by the US Air Force and is a Gate Guard somewhere. A French Sud Aviation SE-DAI Caravelle passenger plane, acquired after 1981, was scrapped about 5 years ago, an unfortunate decision by the museum. The indoor / outdoor collection of 60 pre-tornado aircraft has been enhanced since 1981 to now be almost 100 aircraft at NEAM, with 65 displayed at any one time and the rest in storage or being restored.

The Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Society, the parent organization of the NEAM, was founded in 1959 and the museum has been in its current location since 1981. The museum currently has six buildings: Civilian; Military; 58th Bomb Wing Memorial with the fully restored B-29 Superfortress “Jack’s Hack”; two restoration hangers and one storage hanger. Besides the airplanes, the museum also has an extensive collection of engines, instruments, aircraft parts, uniforms and personal memorabilia. Within this collection are some special planes: the last remaining four-engine American flying boat, the Sikorsky VS-44A, donated by the previous owner, actress Maureen O’Hara and restored to its previous luxurious condition; an expertly restored B-29 Bomber; Silas Brooks Balloon Basket (1879) which is believed to be the oldest surviving aircraft in the US; the Bunce-Curtis Pusher (1912); the oldest surviving Connecticut-built (in Bridgeport) airplane, the Sikorsky S-39; and an a Kaman K-225 helicopter (Kaman is a Connecticut-based helicopter and aerospace manufacturer originally located at Bradley).

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On a recent visit, there were 9 outdoor aircraft seen: the Martin RB-57A Canberra light bomber; the Kaman K-16B of 1962, an experimental VTOL; the Douglas F4D-1 Skyray of 1958; the Lockheed TV-2 (T-33) Shooting Star of 1955; the US Army C-7A Caribou of 1962; the Grumman E-1B Tracer; the Northrop F-89 Scorpion; the A-3D Navy Skywarrior; and the HU-16E Albatross. There are currently 21 aircraft in storage, including such favorites as the F-4D Phantom II; the A-10 Warthog; the F-14A Tomcat; the HU-25 Falcon; and the B-25 Mitchell Bomber. There are two aircraft in full restoration: the DC-3 and the Burnelli CBY-3 Loadmaster. The Military Hanger is the most popular. It currently contains: P-47 Thunderbolt; A-26C Invader; F-100A Super Sabre (CT-ANG); UH -1B Huey (CT-ANG); K-225 helo; HH-43F Huskie helo; F-104C Starfighter (479th TFW, Hann AFB, Germany, holds altitude record 92,000-feet, speed record Mach 2.5); DR-1 Red Baron tri-wing; CH-54B Skycrane (1962, CT Army NG); XF4U4 Corsair; Seasprite SH-2F; A-4D Skyhawk (VA-153); F-4D Phantom II (66-0269). Peeking into the Restoration Hangers I saw such stars as the: A-10 Warthog (CT-ANG); F-14 Tomcat; HU-25 USCG Falcon; DC-3 and the B-25. And there are two stars inside: the Boeing B-29 “Jack’s Hack” of the 58th BW in its own private hanger and the Sikorsky VS-44A Flying Boat “Excambrian” of the American Export Lines and a Lockheed 10A that Emilia Earhart flew into oblivion in the Pacific on July 2, 1937.

But my three favorite planes from years ago are sadly gone from the NEAM: the Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle Airliner from 1955 (scrapped); the Republic F-105 Thunderchief (unknown); and the Boeing RB-47 (returned to the US Air Force). But, all told, Bradley offers quite a collection of Warbirds and some fascinating aviation stories. Go Take a Trip Up!!!

 

Atlantic Trident 17 Commemorates a Century of Cooperation By Three Allies

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The United States of America and the French Republic have shared some close political, and even closer military ties since the American Revolution of the late 1700s. During the First World War, America officially entered the conflict on April 6, 1917 as a French ally. In fact, most of the engagements that the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) experienced were fought on the grounds of, and in the air overhead France’s countryside. For the past century, the United States and the United Kingdom have fought common aggressors alongside each other too. More than once America has sided with these two countries to maintain order in Europe. These bonds were especially true during the First World War.

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On April 21, 2017, a Commemoration Day was observed at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Virginia, remembering one hundred years of military cooperation between allies – the U.S., France and Great Britain. Two USAF Fighter Squadrons based at Langley, the 27th and the 94th Fighter Squadrons have lineages that date back one hundred years to World War I. French and American cooperation was highlighted by a flying display that included a Patrouille de France jet team flight routine, a French Rafale fighter demonstration, and a USAF F-22 Raptor flight demonstration too. A review of how France and America aviators became allies during the Great War in 1917 and how the partnership survives today, some one hundred years later, is worth looking at.

Even before America’s official entry into World War I, a number of her citizens fought as volunteers for the French as Foreign Legionnaires. The La Fayette Flying Corps, named after a French hero who fought during the American Revolution, contained many Americans who volunteered to fly and fight during the early part of the War, before the United States officially entered the struggle. Some were pilots, some aerial gunners, others performed reconnaissance.

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La Fayette Escadrille members

In the air war, the Escadrille N.124, known as the “Tete de Sioux” or “Escadrille Americaine” was established in March of 1916, and soon deployed with many Americans on its flying roster – having been trained to fly by the French. After German protests regarding these supposedly – neutral Americans entering the battle, the fighter unit was renamed as the “La Fayette Escadrille”. On May 18, 1916, Kiffin Yates Rockwell became the first American pilot to shoot down a German plane during World War I, while serving with the French volunteer squadron. By the end of the Escadrille’s existence in February 1918, Americans were credited with thirty five victories. The top American ace of the group was Raoul Lufbery, who later commanded the 94th Aero Squadron of the U.S. Air Service.

Close to a year elapsed from the time the squadron stood up until a large group of America’s military aviators would enter the fray; one source states that more than two hundred fifty U.S. citizens would fly for the French La Fayette Flying Corps (though not all with the La Fayette Escadrille), losing sixty eight of their number in combat, while shooting down forty-one enemy aircraft. As a footnote: in February 1918, the La Fayette Escadrille would pass from French to American control, as the 103rd Aero Squadron.

As the European war raged, American military preparedness to enter the battle began to produce a slow but steady stream of trained, yet untested aviators. When war was declared against Germany, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps contained around twelve hundred men; none of the country’s 200 or so aircraft were really combat-capable, nor were they American-made. France and Great Britain stepped in and began training men in aviation trades, knowing that many would arrive to fight in Europe soon thereafter. By the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the Air Service of the AEF would contain over seventy eight thousand men; more than two thirds of them would be fighting in Europe. Almost twenty thousand more men were training in Europe for placement in aviation positions. The Air Service had some 7,900 aircraft, many were now of American design and manufacture.

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27th Aero Squadron operated, French built Nieuport 28 fighter.

America’s aircraft building program couldn’t hope to supply the Air Service with an adequate amount aircraft in a short period of time. Building them, and then shipping them across the Atlantic was time consuming, and damage by storms was a risk to the relatively fragile machines too. To offer functional machines in close proximity to the front lines, a contract between the French Air Ministry and the Commander of the AEF was signed on August 30, 1917 for five thousand French-built aircraft and even more engines for them. Three types of Air Groups (Bombardment, Surveillance and Pursuit) were formed with three or four squadrons attached to each. Aircraft ordered for the Pursuit squadrons were one thousand five hundred Nieuport 28 and two thousand SPAD XIII biplane fighters.

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94th Aero Squadron members

Some ninety experienced pilots transferred from the La Fayette Flying Corps into the fledgling AEF, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and skills to pass on to eager but inexperienced American aviators. The 1st Pursuit Group, made up of the 27th, 94th, 95th and 147th Aero Squadrons (today known as Fighter Squadrons) became operational in the spring of 1918, a year after America’s declaration of war.

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94th Aero Squadron emblem.

The 95th Aero Squadron became the first American unit to deploy to the Front, arriving at the 1st Pursuit Organization and Training Center on February 16, 1918. Soon, it was equipped with French-built Nieuport 28 fighters. The 94th Aero Squadron followed shortly, with similar aircraft. On March 6, 1918, the 94th launched the first patrol by an American-trained squadron. Led by Raoul Lufbery and including Eddie Rickenbacker and Douglas Campbell, the flight received German anti-aircraft fire, but had no contact with German aircraft.

The 95th Aero Squadron performed their first operational flights two days later. Both squadrons were tasked to perform reconnaissance missions, as neither units had machine guns installed in their aircraft yet. The 95th hadn’t even trained for aerial gunnery, and would be withdrawn from the front from March 24th through April 22nd to train for this capability. On April 10, 1917, the 94th received their first machine guns and four days later finally stood watch as an armed combat unit. The same day, Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow recorded aerial combat victories, the firsts for an American-trained unit.

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94th Aero Squadron pilots, Captain Rickenbacker is in the middle.

The 94th Aero Squadron ended the war with eight aces, but many of the victories tallied were carried over from flights when pilots were still flying in French units before American involvement occurred. Captain “Eddie” Rickenbacker finished with twenty-six victories, the most for an American pilot. He would receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, a number of years after the war ended. The former Rickenbacker Air Force Base, located near Columbus Ohio, was named after this pilot who grew up in the area.

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27th Aero Squadron plane and pilot.

The 27th Aero Squadron trained in Texas before travelling to Canada to train with the Royal Flying Corps. Later, they moved back to Texas and then to New York, ready to be shipped to Europe. After arriving in the United Kingdom, they were sent to France, and received further training before joining the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons. The 27th performed their first operational sorties on June 2, 1918.

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27th Squadron members in front of a French-built SPAD XIII.

This squadron helped produce six aces before the war ended, including the nation’s first Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant Frank Luke. Nicknamed the “Arizona Balloon Buster”, Luke excelled at dispatching these dangerous targets. Observation balloons were backed up with heavy anti-aircraft support, and were dangerous to attack from any angle because of the associated ground fire. Lt. Luke tallied fourteen victories over balloons, and eighteen victories in total, over a six week span. He was killed while on another balloon busting sortie on September 29, 1918. Luke Air Force Base, in Arizona, is named after this second-most successful American fighter pilot of World War I.

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1st Fighter Wing F-22A Raptor.

In 2017, the proud lineage that began one hundred years ago still exists at the Air Force side of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Virginia. The 1st Fighter Wing, the descendant of the 1st Pursuit Group, still contains the 94th Fighter Squadron, and the 27th Fighter Squadron. Both squadrons fly the 5th generation F-22A Raptor fighter, a far cry from the Nieuport 28 and SPAD XIII fighters that their predecessors – the 94th and 27th Aero Squadrons – began operations with.

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RAF Typhoon FGR.4

Cooperation between U.S., French and British flying units has existed since World War I, and exercise Atlantic Trident 17 is the second event of its type – the first one was held in 2016. The exercise allows the latest technology in fourth and fifth-generation fighter and attack jets from each country to work in concert with each other. Interoperability between pilots is always a concern within a coalition of partners, and this application of different aviation platforms allows for almost two weeks of practice and training for the participants. This experience will be shared going forward, when the three countries are called again to fly and fight against a common foe.

Special thanks need to go out to… Mr. Joshua Lashley, 1st Fighter Wing Historian, and Mr. Jeffrey Hood, Media Operations Section Chief, 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs, for their assistance with this article.

Additional World War I archival photos.

Current jets of the three Air Forces.