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The World's First Tri-Level Aerial Refueling

During operations in North Vietnam, the U.S. Air Force greatly depended on an array of tanker aircraft: HC-130 Hercules refueled rescue helicopters; Navy carrier-borne KA-3 Skywarriors and KA-6 Intruders refueled aircraft carrier fighter-bombers. But perhaps the most heavily depended upon craft were KC-135 Stratotankers, which performed the midair refueling of fighter-bombers.

During the Vietnam War, the Strategic Air Command based its Stratotankers in Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan. The planes operated over northern and eastern Thailand, northern Laos, and the Gulf of Tonkin all the way to the North Vietnamese coast. Occasionally, tanker crews entered North Vietnam to come to the aid of fighter-bombers who needed fuel to return home.

USAF/SAC tankers also refueled B-52s that bombed targets in Laos and South Vietnam, where surface-to-air missile sites did not exist. Deployed according to combat demands, the size of the tanker fleet in Southeast Asia peaked at 195 by the end of 1972.

F-105 Thunderchiefs carried the brunt of the early air war in Vietnam, and benefitted from some spectacular mid-air fueling rescues. In the photo, a bomb-laden F-105D is about to refuel over the Gulf of Tonkin. (U.S. Air Force)

Aerial refueling required the combined efforts of Air Force and Navy crews to maximize the full potential of passing gas (yes, that’s old-time tanker humor). Early in the Vietnam War, tanker crews’ professionalism and creative problem-solving brought a new perspective to and pushed the limits of air-to-air refueling. One event, though, took a twist so convoluted that, after it ended, Air Force and Navy commanders had opposing views of what happened and an Air Force Stratotanker crew faced a court martial.

The confusion began on May 31, 1967, when the North Vietnamese shot down an A-4 Skyhawk flying with Navy Attack Squadron VA-212, aka the Rampant Raiders. The shootdown turned a bombing raid into a Search-and-Rescue mission for the downed Skyhawk pilot. Two Navy Skywarrior tankers awaiting Rampant Raiders exiting the North ran short of fuel and diverted to meet a nearby Air Force Stratotanker manned by Maj. John Casteel and his crew from the 4258th Strategic Wing. They had just finished another day of topping off fighters over the Gulf of Tonkin. Along for the ride were co-pilot Capt. Richard Trail, navigator Capt. Dean Hoar, and boom operator Master Sgt. Nathan Campbell.

From left, Maj. John Casteel, Capt. Richard Trail, Capt. Dean Hoar, and Master Sgt. Nathan Campbell used miniature models to demonstrate how they executed a tri-level midair refueling, one of the Vietnam War's most extraordinary tanker rescue operations. (Department of Defense)

Soon after establishing a refueling track, Casteel’s crew began to top off a pair of Air Force F-104 Starfighters flying an air defense sortie along the DMZ. They were in the middle of refueling the F-104s when the two Navy Skywarrior tankers, now desperately short of fuel, intercepted them. Both KA-3s normally carried 23,000 pounds of fuel they could transfer but couldn’t use themselves. In this case, they had given most of their transferable fuel to Navy strike and fighter aircraft and didn’t have adequate fuel to help each other.


Having received a partial onload, the Air Force F-104s moved aside and allowed the thirsty Navy jets to hook up with Casteel’s Stratotanker. They remained with the group, however, to defend against a possible MiG attack.

Lt. Cmdrs. John Wunsch and Don Alberg piloted the Navy KA-3 Skywarriors. On arriving at Casteel’s KC-135, they had seven or eight minutes of usable fuel aboard. Wunsch’s KA-3 took on a minimum amount of gas and moved aside for Alberg’s KA-3 to hook up. All the problems seemed solved until Alberg could not connect with the KC-135’s boom.

To his chagrin, he discovered that the Air Force tanker-basket system differed from the Navy’s. “With the Navy,” he later explained, “if you hit the basket and put the tip in with a push, you’ll screw up the hose and it won’t feed. With the Air Force, it’s just the opposite. I probed three times for maybe five minutes and was really sweating a flameout and a crash because I couldn’t get a hookup, and then they got around to telling me this.”

Meanwhile, the SAR mission had ended when the North Vietnamese captured the Rampant Raiders pilot who had been shot down.

A Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter eases itself under the belly of a C-130 Hercules tanker plane for fuel over the Gulf of Tonkin near the carrier Ranger on Yankee Station on January 1, 1968. The combat search-and-rescue HH-3E was used during the Vietnam War to recover downed Airmen in the Vietnam War. The converted C-130 doubled as a tanker and a radar picket plane. (Courtesy Associated Press)

As Alberg finally started accepting fuel, two Navy F-8 Crusaders from the aborted SAR mission in North Vietnam showed up. One pilot was more desperate for fuel than Alberg was. So Alberg kept his aircraft plugged into the KC-135, deployed his hose, told the F-8 pilot to hook up with him, and pumped what remained of his transferable fuel.

Together, the trio formed a parade of a large Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, a smaller Navy KA-3 Skywarrior, and a relatively tiny Navy F-8 Crusader. The double hookup created what is believed to have been the world’s first tri-level refueling.

Wunsch’s Skywarrior offloaded the dregs of its transferable fuel to the second F-8 before returning to the Stratotanker to finish its own rescue.

The gang of fuel-hungry aircraft grew when two Navy F-4 Phantoms with bingo fuel vectored to the Stratotanker. While awaiting the arrival of those two Navy F-4s, Casteel returned to servicing the original two Air Force F-104 defenders. He then then gave the Navy F-4s enough gas for them to reach their aircraft carrier.

At that point, Casteel did not have enough adequate fuel to return home to Okinawa. He diverted to Da Nang Air Base after refueling the two air-defense F-104s for a third time. All was well and good until details about what happened reached Seventh Air Force Headquarters and a few upper-level bosses lost their cool.

It was relatively early in the war in 1967 and, stymied by political indecisions, the military services were still jockeying for leadership status—an issue never fully resolved as illustrated by the fact that five years later SAC planners stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska dictated ill-advised tactics for the1972 B-52 Linebacker II missions over North Vietnam. In 1967, SAC tankers were not permitted to refuel Navy planes, and vice versa, and in fact were not generally equipped to refuel each other’s planes.

air to air
A Douglas EKA-3 Skywarrior refuels a Grumman KA-6D Intruder refuelling a McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom II in a rare photo of a tri-level aerial refueling. (Department of Defense)

Because Air Force and Navy aircraft sometimes operated in the same region, situations developed in which Air Force tankers had to help distressed Navy planes—even if it was against the rules. Those rules made no sense to pilots. They knew that both services were on the same side in a war against the North Vietnamese, so they helped each other when necessary, which is what John Casteel did on May 27. After an unauthorized rescue, pilots cooked the books to cover up the disappearances of offloads of precious fuel.

Along with conspiring with an ally, Casteel’s adventure contained violations too flagrant to ignore. For one thing, his crew could be charged with abandoning its assigned post. For another, landing the KC-135 at Da Nang was forbidden by Air Force regulations because commanders feared that the plane might become a magnet for enemy mortars or rockets. Plus, Casteel simply flew where he was not supposed to go and expended fuel intended for other purposes.

What’s more, when the two KA-3 tankers had nearly run out of gas, Alberg had put out a call on tanker frequencies and found Casteel’s KC-135 nearby. “I asked his altitude,” Alberg said, “and he was at 28,000 feet. We were at fifteen hundred feet, so no way would we have enough gas to climb up to him. He said he’d come down.”

And he did come down. And he helped his comrades. And his crew got in trouble.

But then the issue reached the Pentagon where Navy leaders were thrilled to learn that the six Navy planes involved in the operation reached their carriers safely. When the Navy brass suggested that Casteel might be eligible for the Navy Cross, the Air Force dropped the matter.

air to air
Retired Lt. Col. Richard Trail points to the crew members of the 1967 Mackay Trophy award mission inscribed on the nose of KC-135 Stratotanker, tail number 60-0329, on Oct. 2, 2019, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (U.S. Air National Guard)

Coda: Each man on Casteel’s crew received a Distinguished Flying Cross, and the crew received the 1967 Mackay Trophy for the “most meritorious flight of the year” by an Air Force person, persons, or organization.

Some historians have labeled the Vietnam air war as a “Tanker War,” underscoring the critical dependency of attack aircraft on aerial refueling and serving as testament to the innovative and courageous efforts of tanker crews during the conflict.

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Hank Zeybel, a frequent contributor to the magazine’s online Books in Review II column, served two Vietnam War tours as a navigator on C-130 Hercules and as a navigator/bombardier on AC-130 Spectre Gunships and is the author of the acclaimed memoir, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos and More. For this article, he offers a “maximum offload of thanks to Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, John L. Frisbee, Brian D. Laslie, Norman Palmer, Walt Senhert, and Sedley “Chet” Davis for their research, books, and articles concerning this day in aviation history.”




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