Wichita’s refueling idea became aviation mainstay

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, April 22, 1985.

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

A tired, frustrated crew stalked into the conference room next to the
Boeing flight test hangar, its mission a failure.

The crew’s demonstration flight on that early spring day in 1948 –
designed to illustrate to Air Force officials just how well the new in- flight
refueling system using hoses could work – had instead painfully pointed out
its deficiencies. Despite several tries in rough conditions, the two airplanes
were unable to effect a ship-to-ship hook-up with the hose.

“Damn it! There just has to be a better way to do this!” test pilot Gus
Askounist complained to test chief Elton Rowley.

Then a thought occurred to Askounist. It is a moment Rowley remembers
well. “He said, ‘You know, I remember when I was flying the China-Burma
runs (during World War II), I used to do something,’ “Rowley said.” ‘When I
was getting low on fuel, I’d get into the leader’s lip stream, and I used to
fly there for hours.’ And I said, ‘Gus, you’ve got something there. Show me.'”

Askounist did just that, taking his plane up just behind and below the
lead plane into the patch of calm air, a windbreak created by the lead plane.

“Right then, I knew we had our answer,” said Rowley, who was riding with Askounist on the flight.

Within months, using Askounist’s idea, Boeing engineers had designed an
in-flight refueling system using a short metal fuel boom that remains a

mainstay of long-distance flight today.

The refueling system was Wichita’s main technological contribution in an

age that was introducing a whirlwind of changes into the aviation industry.

World War II had ended with the birth of atomic warfare and the dawn of

the jet age. The decade following the end of the war saw the introduction of a

number of technological improvements that are still in regular use today,

including the forerunner of computerized weapons systems and the refueling

system born out of a moment of anger in Wichita.

“We were at the bottom of the ladder on a brand-new technology,” said

Paul Tibbets, who spent almost three years in Wichita flight-testing B-47 jet

bombers after gaining fame as the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that

dropped the first atomic bomb.

Optically controlled guns had actually been installed on a few bombers

before the end of the war. As the gunner tracked with his gun sight, a remote

control firing system would lock the guns onto the target in the sight hairs.

The new system became a must for the jets that came later, which flew at

speeds that made wartime bomb-sight systems useless.

“What it did was computerize the bomber,” Rowley said. “They had a rear

tail-gun that was self-seeking, would lock onto a target. You walked around

it, and it would follow you around. That’s a spooky feeling to have a

20-millimeter gun staring right at you.”

The British were actually the first to come up with a refueling system

using hoses shortly after the end of World War II. But the British system was

designed for refueling at much lower speeds than the United States could

accept, Rowley said, and British hoses tore easily.

After more than a year of research, the United States had developed its

own system – proving it by dramatically flying a B-50 bomber around the world

in 94 hours, 1 minute in February 1949.

The hose system called for the tanker ship to fly above and slightly

behind the plane needing the fuel, dangling a weighted line with a grappling

hook on the end. The line would then touch and take hold of a line extending

behind the receiver ship. Crew members in the receiver plane would then reel

in the connected wires, bringing in the 250-foot hose with it.

Even before the around-the-world flight, however, designers knew the hose

system wasn’t the final answer. Refueling at night and in rough air conditions

just wasn’t possible.

“You could be the best pilot in the world and couldn’t do it,” Rowley


With Askounist’s idea, however, those problems virtually disappeared.

Within eight weeks after that first flight, Rowley said, two planes were able

to effect a hook-up using a 25-foot-long metal boom. An engineer sent from

Boeing headquarters in Seattle to monitor progress on the hose refueling

system returned with an entirely new system instead. That same system –

perfected in Seattle – is still in use today.

For the rest of the period, Wichita served as a primary production site

for B-47s and B-52s. Beginning in July 1950, Tibbets test flew B-47 bomber

jets for three years, living with other pilots in a downtown Wichita house

“that was like a fraternity.”

The B-47 set records, becoming the first plane to exceed 600 mph, the

first to fly over the North Pole and the first to fly 12,000 miles nonstop in

24 hours. The bomber had a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet and could carry a

bomb load of 20,000 pounds, although it was never used in combat.

Tibbets returned to Florida in March 1953 with special memories of

Wichita. “I was doing work that I was qualified for,” he said, “and that I

loved to do.”

©The Wichita Eagle