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The Time A Tanker Saved A Fighter That Was Falling Apart Over The Atlantic

On the 5th of September, 1983, 4 USAF F-4E Phantom jets were flying over the Atlantic en route to Europe along with the support of a KC-135 known as “North Star.” These five aircraft were part of a larger number of Phantoms and tankers on a routine trans-Atlantic flight. To make the crossing, the Phantoms would need to tank a total of 8 times to fill their thirsty engines. ( More...

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ExAF 41
Believe it or not, I was Ghost’s wingman for this ordeal. I will do my best to “fill in the gaps” and answer some of the questions I’ve seen here. I have not read all of the responses. For the naysayers, this did actually happen and was documented in Airman, AF Flight Safety and TAC Attack magazines. In addition to the McKay Trophy going to the tanker crew, Ghost received a DFC. My WSO and I received AF Commendation Medals. I don’t know what individual awards the tanker crew got.

First to answer some of the response questions I read and clear up some of the facts. Ghost’s WSO was Maj Dan Silva. The article said another name I believe was mentioned as one of the tanker crew. The good/second/#1 engine never overheated. When at low altitude, his jet was not fuel starved. The AOA of the F-4 was never at 45 degrees. It did get behind the power curve. We diverted to Gander. An ejection would not have killed them, but even with a poopy suit, the cold water, exposure and hypothermia would have before they could be rescued.

Now I’ll try to give a quick narrative to fill in the gaps. Remember, this happened 32 years ago. Most of the events are still crystal clear, but some of the minor details may be a little fuzzy. This is my recollection. We were part of a squadron deployment to Ramstein AB. Configuration was 3 external gas tanks, ECM pod, travel pods, captive AIM-9 and 2 TERs. A very heavy and draggy configuration. Just prior to the half way point across the Atlantic, Ghost’s jet suffered an oil leak in the #2 engine. The mission commander directed him to divert to Gander and assigned me to escort him. They also dispatched the spare tanker to rendezvous with us and take us to Gander. Ghost and Dan ran their checklist and shut down the #2 engine. Initially it was windmilling and they started a 250KIAS decent (engine out procedure to find the single engine service ceiling). Eventually the windmilling engine seized due to lack of oil resulting in a “dead wing” and additional drag. When the decent at 250KIAS still didn’t produce a sustainable level off below 10,000ft, he tried AB on the good engine and the asymmetrical thrust produced an uncontrollable roll due to the dead wing. As we later found out from the after action investigation, 250KIAS would not provide a sufficient thrust to sustain the configuration we were in. It needed to be closer to 300KIAS and after this incident the Dash 1 was changed accordingly. As the centerline tank and wing tanks went dry, he jettisoned them to reduce drag and weight while still in a slow 250Kt decent. While all of this was happening, the spare tanker had overflown us and using air to air TACAN and radar, the WSOs found the tanker above and about 35 miles in front of us. My WSO, Pete Raffa, gave the tanker turn and decent directions for a large S turn that rolled them out 3 miles right in front of us. He later told me, “God did that…not me.” We discussed options and decided to refuel me first in case the crippled jet broke the boom. I still had my wing tanks and took a few thousand pounds to enable me to make it to Gander without a tanker at low altitude. That done, the boomer gave the AC directions to back into position to hook up to the crippled jet. Once in position they made contact. They did not pass any gas because the last think the jet needed at that point was more weight. With a manual override on the boom clamp they attempted to “tow” the F-4 to a higher altitude. There were a couple of disconnects as they figured out how much thrust/acceleration was enough to move the jet without breaking contact. Eventually they were able to assist the jet up to about 10,000’ and accelerate to around 300 KIAS. As it ended up, that 300 KIAS was the key. At this point, the F-4 was flyable again and they would not have gotten there without the help of that tanker. The tanker crew did an awesome job making this happen and definitely saves two lives that day. Ghost took enough gas to make it to Gander and once disconnected, they flew on their own. There were some weather, wind and approach issues that further complicated their recovery; but they ended up making an uneventful approach end barrier engagement at Gander. I landed after they cleared the barrier and the tanker landed after me. I hope this answers some of the questions asked and clears up some of the blank spots.
Bob Roehrer 5
this illustrates (and should remind us all) how an honest story can get twisted up beyond recognition over time. Fascinating!! thanks!!
Ruger9X19 3
Wow quite a story, thanks for the facts. Sounds like great airmanship all around.
sparkie624 3
Very nice.. Thanks for sharing... The media never gets anything right and there facts are not as factual as they should be... Great story, thanks for sharing.
VKSheridan 3
Wow. Simply wow. Who says crisis is not the trigger to ingenuity..... Thank you for sharing and more importantly for your service. Good thinking with good skills tend to produce good outcomes. Thanks again!
Cool! Thanks for the eyewitness details. A remarkable story, indeed.
sparkie624 2
WOW... A Job well done is an under statement... Job well done North Star Crew
Truman Lewis 2
Sorry so many naysayer around today, it not a debat it is story about what people do when they they need to, thanks to all that shared the story and this is from a yeasayer.
Bernie20910 2
What happened to the other three Phantoms while the tanker was doing this escort?
Don Hines 2
Read the account, guys. The narrator said , "They also dispatched the spare tanker to rendezvous with us and take us to Gander." Note - spare - tanker. The primary tanker would have continued with the remains of the original flight.
John Mcguire 1
good point
btweston 1
Their engines were fed by the power of 'Merica.
joel wiley 1
Maybe they routed another tanker to assist. Good question tho'
Yvon Dionne 2
What an amazing story!!
charlie lange 2
Dave Mathes 2
...that is hands down one incredible story. A 32+ year KUDOS to the tanker crew!!
Chris B 2
True Story. Look at the 1983 awardees of the Mackay Trophy
Doug Fehmel 2
Great story. As a civilian living and working in West Germany during that time period, I remember all of the low level flyovers the Phantom jets would do while I traveled around the southern part of the country. I believe they would fly out of Zweibruecken AB. I used to call on Exchanges in Bitburg, Spangdahlem, Ramstein and Sembach. Man, were they loud.
WhiteKnight77 2
Very cool story and good that it had a happy ending. I can attest that hardware breaks and often at inopportune times. At least the most major event in my flying carrier happened on the ground. Those in the pointy end of that tanker had some guts for sure. Even the boom operator had to know it could have gone south for them too. BZ for all involved.
sam kuminecz 2
Incredible story of bravery and skill
Thanks for sharing this with everyone.
Wow. I wonder if the 135 crew also received Air Medals or Airman's Medals for their heroics.
Ken Lane 1
I can't help but think it would be more cost effective to either have them flown onto a carrier or crained onto a carrier to float back to the states as opposed to a long flight and numerous refuels.

I'm sure the Air Force pilots were not CarQualed but if the birds had hooks, have the Navy fly them aboard.

It's just a thought.
Both the Air Force and Navy/USMC F-4's used the same identical tail hook (McDonnell Douglas did that to streamline production.) As for Air Force crewmen trying to land a "Rhino" on a pitching, rolling flight deck; that just won't happen because they just weren't trained to do that. Looking at that sort of scenario, the best they could hope for is to eject into that cold ass North Atlantic water and have the carriers SAR helo pick them up before hypothermia sets in.
Ken Lane 1
I was also picturing using Navy pilots to fly them aboard. But looking back, I think the Navy had give up all it's Phantoms for Tomcats long that so there was likely no one easily available to do on that side of the pond.

At most, there were probably some RA-4s somewhere around. Heck, we even had an A3D-2Q on the Ike for ESM.
btweston 1
So the fighter broke away from the tanker while amazingly holding the connection.

I'm not sure I believe this story. Maybe something like this happened, but as it's written... No.
joel wiley 2
Another write up
Dennis Benson 1
Harold Davis 1
I think he was referring to a GLIDE RATIO of a ROCK.
Bob Roehrer 1
this is vague recall, but I believe there are also stories (true ones..!) about pushing or nudging a disabled fellow airman, to avoid ejecting over enemy territory.
David Seider 2
Yes, this has happened at least twice within the US Armed Forces:

James "Robbie" Risner, over Korea, two F-86s

"Pardo's Push", over Vietnam, two F-4s's_Push
No Name 1
Yes, I remember seeing something about it, from Korea IIRC
Heinz Loewen 1
HOLY CRAP!! What a Story!! WooHoo!! WTG!! Glad all made it Safe & Sound! 2 Thumbs Up ALL the Way Around!!
No Name 0
"The Phantom, which is known for its dependence on power to keep flying through the sky"

Hmm, really, didn't know that. As in, other a/c depending on ghosts to keep them flying?!
skylab72 1
NoName they're just referring to the F4's awful sink rate without power...
John Swallow 0
I have limited experience with air refueling, but doubt that the KC-135 could "tow" the Phantom. It doesn't take much force to disconnect from the probe and I don't see how that could be negated. Anyone with AA refueling in the Phantom here...?
skylab72 4
OK, the phrase "It doesn't take much force to disconnect from the probe" is true with all safety interlocks in place. However both the boom operator and the receiving aircraft have some ability to defeat selected "safety" features in an emergancy. The boom on KC-135 of this era could and on occasion did exert several hundred pounds of towing force. The boom and the aircraft receptical both require repair after such abuse, but that is better than freezing in the Atlantic.
sam kuminecz 2
In Vietnam a tanker supposedly towed a crippled F-105 Thud over enemy territory by the boom until it was close enough to their base where the pilot ejected...
Several aviation heroes have recounted that story and their word is worth gold with pilots and veterans alike...

Who knows
sam kuminecz 0
I don't know how true these stories are but it seems like this wasn't the first time fighters have been towed by another aircraft when experiencing mechanical the saying never leave a wingman behind
John Mcguire -4
This story is not credible, I think it is mostly fiction. It had remnants of truth however it just does not add up. A fuel transfer line cannot(I am guessing now) support a heavy jet for hundreds of miles at speeds >200 knots. The source story at seems to be a rehash news, get advertisers and pay no copy right type of web site.

Happy to hear others comments. Yes I even looked at the wiki story but....these can readily be fictionalized. Are any of the imputed crew around who can elaborate on the story?

Googled couple of the crew, black and white photos in 1983? no way. Seems one died

ExAF 6
It did happen. The boom didn't have to support the entire weight of the jet, just aid in acceleration, like bumping a moving car. The faster they are the easier to assist. All official photos in AF personnel files were black and white in 1983. one died which is why this is such a good story.
Will Sutton 2
I was stationed at SAC HQ when this happened and I remember the event. Not only happened but it wasn't the first, or last, time it was done. Not unusual for a fighter to be towed to safety back south of the DMZ in Viet Nam, and I know of a time that an SR-71 was helped to an emergency landing in New Orleans after losing an engine.
joel wiley 2
About the Mackay Award:

Awards timeframe including 1983:

September 5:

Credible or not, it appears that either the event occurred or there is a massive spoof going on.

Did not try to go farther and research each named crewman at this time.
30west 1
Reading the "this day in aviation" link, it appears that the event did happened. It describes it as three refuelings during the 500 mile divert to Gander conducted at a very slow and dangerous airspeed for refueling ops at just above landing Vref and suggests at a low altitude. It mentions that the Tanker "occasionally actual towed" the Phantom. I will speculate that the "towing" was done after fuel xfer was complete and the Phantom was able to hang on for a limited amount of time until the drag caused the boom to detach.

Beyond the headlines, the reason for the award in my opinion was the skill and heroism of the Tanker crew to conduct the multiple successful refuelings outside the normal refueling envelope and at an airspeed that allowed the narrowest of safety margins should the situation deteriorate, i.e. turbulence.

Towing was an attention grabber in the above story.
"override of boom disconnect" read the article - and the Wing says your
'opinion" is wrong ... it didn't "tow" it still had 50% power ... sorry :(
atlwatchdog -8

I still call BS. No doubt the tanker followed them, but no way physically possible unless they jammed the boom into the F-4, and literally dragged the F-4. I think something went well, but someone is over exaggerating this story, big time. Guess hype helps books and movies sell $$$$$$$$ Heck, bigger lies have been told for less money lol. Otherwise, if it happened the way they claim, it is nothing short of a miracle.
babyracer 5
The boom nozzle doesn't simply sit in the F-4's receptacle, it actively latches in. By "towing" the KC-135 wasn't dragging the F-4, the coupling would not be able handle that stress.
The F-4's engines were still providing thrust (albeit severely limited) therefore the KC-135 would only need to provide a little 'tug' (or boost if you prefer) to give the F-4 the airspeed and altitude it needed to get to the divert.
That is all it did, not haul it around the sky like some 18 or so tonne kite.
skylab72 1
your talking an F4 here, that's a 30 ton kite...
joel wiley 2
Which do you call BS, the tanker tow, Ronald Craft's onboard observation, or the book/movie/website?


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