Published on January 7, 2013
Today in aviation history, on January 7, 1929, a very special airplane landed in Los Angeles at Metropolitan Airport (now Van Nuys Airport) after a record-setting 150 hour, 40 minute flight. The crew consisted of Major Carl A. Spatz (later he changed his name to Spaatz), Capt. Ira C. Eaker, 1st Lt. Harry A. Halverson, 2nd Lt. Elwood R. Quesada, and Sgt. Roy W. Hooe — all of whom went on to distinguished careers in the Air Corps and later Air Force. To achieve the record-setting endurance flight, the crew used air-to-air refueling, an experimental technique at the time that, although they were not the first to try it, they did manage to perfect the process with their plane, the Fokker C-2 “Question Mark”.
Despite the incredible success of the mission, however, it would take the US Army Air Corps another 12 years before it would try aerial refueling again. By then, it would be too late to use in World War II, into which the United States was just entering. Had the USAAC invested earlier in aerial refueling systems, it seems obvious that the air war over Europe would have been an entirely different experience. Just imagine what might have been and the headlines —
“Hawaii-based Army bombers bomb Tokyo!”
“Multiple Top Secret Aerial Refueling Operations Took Place over Western Pacific”
The Question Mark
The idea for the 1929 aerial refueling mission came from a very unlikely sequence of events. While flying a long duration search and rescue, Lt. Elwood Quesada conceived of an aerial “gas station” in the sky. Lt. Quesada petitioned Capt. Eaker, then a military assistant to an Assistant Secretary of War, to get Army approval. Capt. Eaker was able to wrangle approval and, in the process, put himself onto the mission. Overall responsibility was assigned to Maj. Spatz and another pilot, Lt. Halverson, was drafted into the project as well as an NCO, Sgt. Roy W. Hooe.
The Army then approved a new Atlantic-Fokker C-2A transport aircraft to undergo modifications for the mission, fitting an additional two 150 gallon fuel tanks in the fuselage, dramatically increasing the fuel capacity of the plane, which normally had two 96 gallon tanks, one in each wing. An additional 45 gallon oil tank was added to feed the engines during the flight (early engines burned and threw off huge amounts of oil when running normally). With the modifications completed, the team named the plane “Question Mark”.
Two other refueling aircraft were selected and crewed for the operation — both were Douglas C-1s — which were designated “Refueling Airplane No. 1” and “Refueling Airplane No. 2”. These two planes would lower a hose to the “Question Mark” (the crew would then put the hose into the fuselage tanks and fill them accordingly). In each of the Douglas C-1s, two 150 gallon fuel tanks were installed. A weighted 50 foot long fire hose (2.5 inches in diameter) was affixed to the bottom and copper wiring was added so that the hose could be grounded before transferring fuel, thereby eliminating the chance of ignition by an unwanted spark. In addition, a sling line was hung on the C-1 to allow the refueling crews to transfer 5 gallon cans of engine oil and other items, like food, water and messages to the crew.
Finally, a flight of Boeing PW-9D fighters had their fuselages painted black so that chalked messages could be traced on the sides and read by the crew of the “Question Mark” while in flight — these were nicknamed “Blackboard Planes”. This was necessary as all extra items had been stripped from the interior of the “Question Mark”, including the radio (to be fair, radios were not very reliable in those days anyway). This allowed the maximum amount of fuel to be carried aloft and thus ensured that the number of inflight refueling operations could be minimized, a critical requirement since each refueling was a dangerous task. The crew was cognizant of the fact that in 1923 Lt. P.T. Wagner, a Navy pilot, was killed when the refueling hose tangled up in the wings of his aircraft during a Naval aerial refueling trial.
Finally, after careful consideration, a 110 mile ‘race-track’ oval was selected for smooth air and favorable weather — the crew would orbit, hour after hour, on the ‘race-track’ throughout the flight, thus keeping them near reasonable landing fields and all of the support aircraft.
The “Longest Flight”
On January 1, 1929, the crew of the “Question Mark” mounted their plane and took off with 100 gallons of fuel on board plus oil — the maximum weight allowed to achieve take off. Once flying, however, the plane could carry a far greater load — with modifications, the maximum capacity had skyrocketed to 492 gallons of fuel and 45 gallons of oil. This also meant that soon after take off, the crew would have to undertake their first of many aerial refueling operations that were to come. As planned, the crew made an early appearance over the Rose Bowl Parade, during which they showed off their refueling effort, much to the amazement of the press and onlookers. That first refueling was accomplished just one hour after take off by “Refueling Aircraft No. 2”, flown by 1st Lt. Odas Moon. So far, the mission was a great success.
As evening drew near, the last refueling of the day also transferred an oven-hot turkey — a special New Year’s celebration meal. The crew was also celebrating how well the mission was going so far. However, the first real difficulty happened just hours later. While undertaking a middle of the night refueling, the hose separated from the tank. Maj. Spatz, who was working with Lt. Quesada on the refueling, was bathed in fuel. Dripping, he soon realized that the fuel bath left him in a dangerous position from the toxic fuel that soaked his skin.
He stripped off his flight clothes and toweled off as best he could with oil rags, hoping that he would not have to bail out for medical care — as it happened, he was okay due to the fast action in removing his clothes. Without any additional clothing, a request was sent by note to return in the next refueling with an additional set of flight clothes — yet they didn’t come in the next mission after. Maj. Spatz performed the refueling even though still stripped down, his bare skin buffeted by the wind while balancing atop the plane in the early hours of the morning.
After that, the flight droned along incessantly. Capt. Eaker and Lt. Halvorsen did most of the flying, switching out with the others for sleep. The crew was soon bored flying the same 110-mile ‘race-track’ loop over California. They read books, played cards and sometimes rested in their bunks, hoping for a bit of sleep to pass the time more quickly. The bunks were mounted atop the two internal fuel tanks! Some wrote letters, which were sent up for mailing to the refueling planes on the sling line — that’s a different type of air mail! The refueling procedure, more or less, worked well, though Maj. Spatz was twice more partly doused with fuel when mistakes were made as was Lt. Quesada once. This turned out to be a likely occurrence given the airspeed of the two planes and the way the hose snaked around in the wind as it was lowered.
The Refueling Process
In each refueling, Maj. Spatz would climb atop the plane to pull in the hose, which was then connected to a large sloped bucket affixed to the top of the “Question Mark”. He would turn the valve and Sgt. Hooe would pump by hand as fast as he could. This transferred the fuel from the bucket to the fuel tanks. The rate of transfer was more than 1 gallon a second, so Sgt. Hooe had a lot of fast pumping to do. It seems that there was a reason, after all, that the rest of the crew, all officers, had invited a sergeant along!
Complications were encountered throughout the flight. The changes in weights as the fuel was transferred meant that the refueling plane above would quickly lighten (approximately 600 lbs a minute lighter!) as the fuel was transferred to the “Question Mark” which got roughly the same amount heavier, not including fuel that splashed off. The result was that the two planes would sometimes separate too far apart for the 50 foot fire hose to maintain the connection, the refueling rising and speeding up while the “Question Mark” settled and slowed down with the added weight.
Weather was also a factor, sometimes causing delays or hurry-up refueling operations due to incoming fog or developing turbulence. Finally, there was the wear-and-tear on the “Question Mark” itself, which had to run constantly and consistently throughout without failure. The temperamental engines performed well-enough, on the whole, though a cabin window blew out during the flight. It took awhile to get another one shipped in, which was lowered on the sling line and installed by the crew in flight.
Perhaps the most extraordinary risk taken during the mission was by Sgt. Hooe, who was also a rated mechanic. When one of the engines on the “Question Mark” began to have problems, he climbed out onto a catwalk hanging on the wing and serviced it in mid-flight — all without shutting down the engine.
Success and Aftermath
When the “Question Mark” landed on January 7, 1929, it had set a record that was more than twice as long as the previous endurance record (held by a Belgian team). It would be a mark that would stand the test of time — though once aerial refueling operations became more commonplace, the record would be broken again and again in later years. Nonetheless, everyone on board the “Question Mark” was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Somehow, despite the success of the mission and its obvious potential military value, the US Army (and Navy for that matter) did not see real value in continuing with aerial refueling tests. In the eyes of the top brass, the main impact of the “Question Mark” was simply to get positive publicity for the Armed Forces, which had happened, even exceeding the best hopes of the Army. As such, the War Department felt that little utility could be gained from breaking the Army’s own endurance record. Thus, aerial refueling operations were shelved for 12 years — until 1941.
On the eve of America’s entry into World War, the Army finally dug up the old notes about the “Question Mark” and began to consider possible wartime applications for air-to-air refueling. It seemed timely, after all, and coincidentally, Maj. Spatz had advanced in rank to become Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz had become a general and was named commander of Air Forces Combat Command and then in May became the head of the newly formed 8th Air Force. Capt. Ira Eaker had been promoted to Colonel and, just a year later, was made Brigadier General, where he organized the 8th Air Force under Maj. Gen. Spaatz’s command. By December, he would assume command of the 8th Air Force himself as Maj. Gen. Spaatz took command the entire USAAF in England, which included fighters, bombers, transports and all aspects of the operations.
As for Lt. Quesada, he was promoted in that same year to Brigadier General and assumed command of the 9th Air Force in England. Lt. Halverson became Col. Halverson and lead the famous raid on Ploesti during WWII. As for Sgt. Roy Hooe, he would end his Air Force career in 1950 as a Master Sergeant, having served with honor and distinction throughout. He was ultimately inducted into the Airlift/Tanker Association Hall of Fame in 2001 and, among most aerial refuelers, is arguably more famous than any of the officers who flew on the “Question Mark”.
Ultimately, in 2010, “somewhere in SW Asia”, an air refuelers’ mess hall was named in MSgt. Hooe’s honor — called “Roy’s Flight Kitchen” — and a mural was painted depicting him and the great mission of the “Question Mark”.