The Pioneers of Aerial Refueling
The Crewmembers of the First Series of Army Air Service Aerial Refueling Flights in 1923
Tanker Crew #1: 1Lt Virgil Hine and 1Lt Frank W. Seifert
Tanker Crew #2: Capt Robert G. Erwin and 1Lt Oliver R. McNeel
Receiver Crew: Capt Lowell H. Smith and 1Lt John Paul Richter
The Tanker Aircraft Crewmembers* Supporting the Flight of the “Question Mark” in 1929
Tanker Crew #1: Capt Ross G. Hoyt, 1Lt Auby C. Strickland and 2Lt Irwin A. Woodring
Tanker Crew #2: 1Lt Odas Moon, 2Lt Joseph G. Hopkins and 2Lt Andrew F. Solter
The decade of the 1920s was a period of American prosperity and optimism – it was the “Roaring Twenties,” the decade of bathtub gin, the Model T, the $5 work day and the movie. The 1920s were also an exciting time in aviation. Legendary names like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman had entered the American lexicon, and a number of developments set the stage for a revolution in which airplanes, flying faster, higher, farther and longer than the anyone had dreamed possible, would absolutely shape the subsequent history of the 20th Century.
Flight technology would open the distant corners of the globe; change the ways in which wars were fought; drive technological change in areas ranging from materials research to electronics and computers; and, most importantly, be the impetus for an ever expanding vision of the possible.
Two 1920s military aviation events, the first in 1923, the second in 1929, embraced this spirit of inventiveness and innovation and had a significant and lasting impact on Air Mobility.
1923: Proving the Viability of Aerial Refueling for Military Purposes
On a hazy Southern California summer day in June of 1923, an intrepid group of six U.S. Army Air Service aviators flew the first of four missions designed to prove the viability of air-to-air refueling for military purposes. Earlier experiments had proven that aerial refueling was possible, but that didn’t mean that military leaders believed that the concept should be embraced, let alone resourced and deployed. Like many important military contributions, aerial refueling would have to first be proven to have a useful military application and then wait for an operational requirement.
That requirement would come along 25 years later when General Curtis E. LeMay and other Air Force leaders pressed forward with a series of key decisions which eventually led to a high-water mark in aerial refueling history – a Cold War-Era force of over 1,100 dedicated, operational air refueling tanker aircraft.
The four 1923 missions were flown by two tanker crews and a receiver crew. The members of Tanker Crew #1 were 1Lt Virgil Hine and 1Lt Frank W. Seifert; the members of Tanker Crew #2 were Capt Robert G. Erwin and 1Lt Oliver R. McNeel; and, the Receiver Crew consisted of Capt Lowell H. Smith and 1Lt John Paul Richter.
On Mission #1, on 23 June, Tanker #1 and the Receiver Crew, flying from Rockwell Field, in San Diego, California, successfully accomplished the first-ever military daytime air refueling sortie for the U.S. Army Air Service. Flying two DeHavilland DH-4s, the receiver plane stayed aloft for 6 hours and 38 minutes and the tanker aircraft transferred 75 gallons of fuel. The sortie ended after a single refueling when the receiver aircraft developed engine trouble – and there was only one engine. Mission #2 was flown the following day, 24 June, with the same crews keeping the receiver aircraft aloft for 23 hours and 48 minutes, using both day and night transfers. Their efforts were praised in the local press by the Rockwell Field commander, (then) Major Hap Arnold.
Mission #3, flown on 23 and 24 August, saw the birth of the “Reliability Tanker,” (a tanker aircraft acting as a flying spare should another tanker not be able to pass fuel) when Tanker Crew #2 joined the original two crews. On this mission, using 14 fuel transfers, the Receiver aircraft stayed airborne for 37 hours and 20 minutes flying a racetrack course covering a distance equivalent to flying from Goose Bay, Newfoundland, to Leningrad, Russia – 3,293 miles.
On 25 October, the group, building on their previous successes, flew Mission #4, performing arguably the first-ever operational refueling mission. The Receiver Crew departed Suma, Washington, near the Canadian border and refueled via two contacts with Tanker #1. Then near Sacramento, California, the receiver aircraft made two more successful contacts and flew to the Mexican border, circled the Tijuana Customs House, then landed at Rockwell Field. The flight lasted 12 hours and covered a distance of 1,280 miles.
1929: The Flight of the “Question Mark”
Beginning on New Year’s Day, 1929, and ending on 7 January, a tri-engined U.S. Army Air Corps Fokker C-2A, appropriately named the “Question Mark,” with a crew of five, and two Douglas C-1 aircraft, each with a crew of three, took to the skies for the sole purpose of proving that the range and endurance of an aircraft are only limited by the people who fly them, or the engines that propel them. The crews of these aircraft were out to publicly prove just how long an aircraft receiving aerial refuelings could be kept aloft. The flight played a crucial role in the beginning days of aerial refueling efforts and the development of U.S. Army Air Corps.
The widely recognized crew of the receiver aircraft “Question Mark,” emblazoned with a large “?” on its fuselage, endured 150 hours and 40 minutes aloft, flying back and forth on a 110-mile racetrack course between Los Angeles and San Diego, California. The silent partners in this historic event were the two tankers, known as Refueling Plane #1 and Refueling Plane #2, the often overlooked backbone to this historic flight. The crew of Refueling Plane #1 consisted of the pilot, Capt Ross G. Hoyt, along with two fuel system operators, 1Lt Auby C. Strickland and 2Lt Erwin A. Woodring. Refueling Plane #2 was crewed by 1Lt Odas Moon, as the pilot, and 2Lt Joseph G. Hopkins and 2Lt Andrew F. Solter as the fuel system operators.
The “Question Mark” was a high-winged monoplane with two 96-gallon wing tanks supplemented by two 150-gallon tanks installed in the cabin. The refueling aircraft were single-engine bi-planes equipped with two 150-gallon tanks for fuel offloading. Together, the tankers made 43 refueling contacts, transferring 5,660+ gallons of fuel and 202 gallons of oil. This required uncanny air jockeying. Flying only 15-20 feet directly above the “Question Mark,” fuel was transferred at a rate of 75 gallons per minute from a thin dangled rubber hose which passed through hatches cut in the floors of the C-1 tankers. The tanker pilots and crews were responsible for the formations’ safety of flight while refueling at a speed of 80 miles an hour.
One example of the fortitude and skill demonstrated by the tanker crews occurred one night over the Southern California Imperial Valley. The two planes were in the middle of one of their 12 night refueling missions when Capt Hoyt, piloting Refueling Plane #1, noticed they were on a collision course with a hill called Gray Cliff. Unfortunately, radio communication was not used between any of the participants due to the simple fact that aircraft radios in 1929 were big, heavy and unreliable. However, at night, two different flashlight signals were used to let the tanker know when to separate from the “Question Mark:” a single flash meaning the main fuel valve on the receiver valve was closed; and, two flashes meaning the fuel hose had swung free from the receiver aircraft. The “Question Mark” had not sent either signal as the form of Gray Cliff loomed in the darkness. Capt Hoyt had to make a rapid decision to avert the impending disaster. He immediately made an accelerated climbing turn, away from the hazard area, as a warning to the “Question Mark” that danger was ahead. The “Question Mark” followed his lead and soon the two aircraft maneuvered to make another contact.
The conditions that the tanker crews operated in were extreme. The tankers were required to take off and land a total of 43 times on runways that were little more than cleared strips of land. The fields were not conditioned for the added weight of the fuel that was to be passed once airborne. In fact, Capt Hoyt remarked that the modified Douglas C-1 tanker could not taxi with a fuel load with which it was capable of flying. Additionally, the weather conditions and visibility hazards at Rockwell Field made recovery extremely difficult. Aircraft instrumentation at the time was not adequate for actual instrument flying, and the available navigational aids were limited to a magnetic compass and a rudimentary radio direction finder. Often times, the lights of San Diego and the airfield shining dimly up through the fog were the only landing aids.
In addition to providing the precious fuel and oil that the “Question Mark” needed to sustain flight, the tankers provided other critical items. On one occasion early in the operation, Major Carl Spatz (later Spaatz), the mission commander, was burned by spilled fuel onboard the “Question Mark.” Acting as an airborne ambulance, one of the tankers passed zinc oxide to the “Question Mark” via a swinging rope. Other ropes were also swung, providing telegrams, mail, water, clothing and even a turkey dinner cooked by women of a church in Van Nuys.
The Right Stuff in the Days Before Rockets
In the early days of aviation, before Tom Wolfe, the author of the famous book about U.S. post-World War II experiments with rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft ,“The Right Stuff,” was born, there were U.S. aviators who possessed the “right stuff” – an ethos of bravery and machismo that compelled them to reach for the sky and dare to proven the unproven. Among their number were the courageous airmen who served on the crews of 1923 and 1929 air refueling missions that garnered them the honor of being named, as a group, the 2009 inductee into the Airlift/Tanker Hall of Fame: –
Crewmembers for the 1923 Refueling Flights:
First Lieutenant Virgil Hine
1Lt Virgil Hine was a U.S. Army Air Service pilot stationed at Rockwell Field, California in the 1920s. He was born in Siloam Springs, Arkansas and retired as a Captain. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 30 April 1940 for his role in the 1923 flights proving the viability of military aerial refueling.
First Lieutenant Frank W. Seifert
1Lt Frank W. Seifert enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917, soon becoming an Army Air Service pilot. Based in France during World War I, he flew combat missions. During the 1920s, he flew Border Patrol flights along the Mexican Border. During both of those assignments he complained about having to constantly land to refuel, and became the impetus for the 1923 flights. He mustered out in 1938 and rejoined in 1942 to fly combat missions against the Japanese during World War II. He retired as a Colonel in 1956. He was inducted into the Air Force Aviation Hall of Fame and awarded the DFC on 30 April 1940 for the 1923 flights.
Captain Robert G. Erwin
Capt Robert G. Erwin was a U.S. Army Air Service pilot stationed at Rockwell Field. While there he flew Forestry and Border Patrols and administrative flights. Beyond his participation in the 1923 flights, little else is recorded of his military career.
First Lieutenant Oliver R. McNeel
1Lt Oliver R. McNeel was a U.S. Army Air Service pilot stationed at Rockwell Field. While there he flew Forestry and Border Patrols and administrative flights. Beyond his participation in the 1923 flights, little else is recorded of his military career.
Captain Lowell H. Smith
Capt Lowell H. Smith, a U.S. Army Air Service pilot, had the most notable military career of the six crewmembers of the 1923 flights. He was born in Santa Barbara, California, on 8 October 1892, and graduated from the Military School of Aeronautics at the University of California in 1917. Following graduation, he enlisted in the Aviation Section of Signal Corps, qualified as a pilot in October and was commissioned as a 1Lt in December. He served in England during World War I. Following the success of the 1923 flights, he commanded the Around-the-World Flight in 1924, for which he was awarded the Mackay Trophy. He held 16 world records in military aircraft for speed and endurance. He went on to develop the procedure for massed airborne troop landings, and piloted the first plane to participate in mass parachuting. During World War II, he trained heavy bombardment crews at Davis-Monthan Field, Arizona. Ironically, after all of his aviation exploits, Colonel Lowell Smith died on 4 November 1945, at the age of 53, from injuries suffered falling from a horse just outside Tucson, Arizona.
First Lieutenant John Paul Richter
1Lt John Paul Richter was a U.S. Army Air Service pilot stationed at Rockwell Field, California, in the 1920s. He is most famous for handling the hoses on all four of the 1923 missions. He later participated as a crewmember of the air refueling flights immediately following the 1929 flight of the “Question Mark,” to test in-depth operational applicability.
The Tanker Aircraft Crewmembers for the 1929 flight of the “Question Mark”
Captain Ross G. Hoyt
Capt Ross G. Hoyt began is military career by enlisting in the Coast Artillery Corps, Regular Army, on 9 September 1914. On 7 August 1917 he was appointed a 2Lt at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He was then detailed with the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps and assigned to the Army Balloon School, Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Following service with several Balloon Companies, from New Jersey to Hawaii, he became Professor for Military Science and Tactics, Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii. He then attended Ground School and flying instruction before being assigned to the Office of the Chief of Air Service, Washington, D.C. In January 1929 he was the pilot for Tanker Crew #1 during the flight of “Question Mark.” Following the historic flight, he went on to serve with distinction as a Pursuit Group commander, base commander, Fighter Wing commander. He retired as a Brigadier General (temporary) in 1944.
First Lieutenant Auby C. Strickland
1Lt Auby C. Strickland was born in Braggs, Alabama, in 1895. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Infantry Reserve on 27 November 1917, and was assigned to the 322nd Infantry at Camp Jackson, South Carolina. He served in the Meuse-Argonne engagement in France before being assigned to the American Forces in Germany. On 1 July 1920, he received his regular commission as a second lieutenant and was promoted that very day to first lieutenant. He entered primary flying school at Carlstrom Field, Florida, in July of 1921, and graduated from advanced flying school in January 1923 as a rated pilot. He was named commandant of cadets and a flying instructor. He transferred to the Air Corps in April 1924. Following an assignment as the executive office of the Organized Reserve Air Units at Muskogee, Oklahoma, he was assigned to Rockwell Field, California, where he participated as a tanker pilot for the flight of the “Question Mark.” He went on to named to positions as a Squadron, Group and Fighter Command commander, including serving as the commander of the IX Fighter Command, and commanding general of the Desert Air Task Force, American, the advanced headquarters of the Western Desert Air Force, in the North African Theater of Operations, for which he would be later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He became military governor of Pantelleria in 1943, and was then named deputy air staff officer of the U.S. component of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces in England. In 1949, he was appointed deputy commander of the 61st Troop Carrier Wing at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, and in 1951 became commander of the 60th Troop Carrier Wing there. In July 1952, he was appointed chief of staff of the 18th Air Force. He retired as a Brigadier General in July of 1953.
Second Lieutenant Irwin A. Woodring
2Lt Irwin A. Woodring lived a daring, exciting and short life. He was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on 1 February 1902, and spent most of his short career in the Air Corps on the razor’s edge as a test and fighter pilot. In 1929 he participated in flight of “Question Mark” as a fuel system operator. He was a member of the famous “Three Musketeers of the Air” flying team, and was the last of them to die tragically. He succumbed to his penchant for pushing the envelope on 20 January 1933, while testing a new-type super-charged fighter aircraft at Wright Field, Ohio. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
First Lieutenant Odas D. Moon
1Lt Odas D. Moon enlisted in the U.S. Army on 14 December 1917, and earned his pilot wings in May 1918 at Love Field, Dallas, Texas, where he served as an Instructor, training and preparing young pilots for duty in World War I. Other assignments included service in the Philippines, Panama, Kelly Field, Langley AFB and Maxwell AFB at the Air Corps Tactical School. He is considered a pivotal character in the development of Air Warfare doctrine and the establishment of an independent United States Air Force. An organizer and Charter Member of the Order of the Daedalians, he was the first elected Wing First Vice Commander of the organization. He held the rank of Major when he retired in 1937.
Second Lieutenant Joseph G. Hopkins
2Lt Joseph G. Hopkins was born in New York, New York, in 1900. He enlisted in the New York National Guard on 18 June 1916, and served until 20 March 1917. In July 1917 he enlisted in the regular Army as a corporal, and served with 106th Machine Gun Battalion until discharged on 2 April 1919. He then attended Columbia University for three years. In March 1925 he was appointed a flying cadet, attended primary and advanced flying school, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Reserve. He received his regular commission as a second lieutenant of the Air Corps on 30 June 1927. Assignments with Pursuit Squadrons at Selfridge Field, Michigan, Rockwell Field, California, and Mather Field, California, from 1928 to 1933, followed. While with the 95th Pursuit Squadron at Rockwell Field in 1929, he participated in the flight of the “Question Mark.” Following several staff assignments, in February 1944 he went overseas to become assistant chief of staff for operations of the 10th Air Force in India. In October of that year he was appointed chief of staff of the Army Air Force Training Command in the China-Burma-India Theater. Following various assignments at home and abroad, he was appointed commander of the South Sector of the Atlantic Division of Air Transport Command. In 1950 he assumed the duties of deputy chief of staff for transport operations of the Pacific Division of Military Transport Service, Hickam AFB, Hawaii. In this capacity he was in charge of the Korean airlift. From 1951 to 1955 he served as deputy commander and commander of the Atlantic Division of the Military Air Transport Service, Westover AFB, Massachusetts, moving with division to McGuire AFB, New Jersey in 1955. His decorations include the Bronze Star and Brazilian Military Order of the Southern Cross. He held the rank of Brigadier General when he died on 1 March 1978.
Second Lieutenant Andrew F. Solter
2nd Lt. Andrew F. Solter enlisted in the Air Air Service in 1928 soon becoming a service pilot with the 95th Pursuit Group at Rockwell Field San Diego Cal. In 1929 he became a member of the "Question Mark" flight as a fuel system operator on ship # 2. Also in 1929 he became a member of the Caterpillar Club having to take to his chute during training and formation exercises in Ohio. In 1932 he transferred to March Field, Riverside Cal. during which time he ferried new Boeing P-12's from the factory in Washington state and attained Flight Instructor status. In 1934 he was promoted to 1st Lt. and transferred to "The West Point of the Air" at Randolph Field Tx. to teach new cadets in primary and advanced flight training. 1st Lt. Andrew F. Solter was killed in Sept. 1936 flight testing the new all-metal training aircraft from Seversky.
An Enduring Legacy
The courage, commitment, dedication and professionalism of the intrepid aviators who participated in these two historic missions paved the way for a capability that has grown into the backbone of the ability of the United States to rapidly project power. Their distinctive accomplishments resulted in a legacy of achievement which fundamentally changed the status quo, enhancing Air Mobility’s mission, culture, and history. They were the impetus for the tanker mission evolving from transferring fuel to another airplane 75 gallons at a time to enabling our nation to deliver the clenched fist of U.S. power to our adversaries, as well as the open hand of assistance to people in need. America’s tanker force has evolved into one of the most important elements of the nation’s Air Mobility force – the linchpin to our nation’s global power and influence.