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KC-135 Crew Involved in F-4 Rescue to Speak at Theater in the Woods
July 27, 2018 - As part of the Salute to Tankers and Air Force Reserves theme of Saturday night's Theater in the Woods activities, a few members of the KC-135 Stratotanker crew involved in the rescue of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet over the Atlantic Ocean in 1983 will discuss the daring mission.
On September 5, 1983, 24 F-4 jets were scheduled to travel to Germany from the United States, but because they didn’t have the long-range capacity necessary to cross the Atlantic, they were to be escorted by KC-135s, which would refuel them along the way. Midway across the north Atlantic, one of the Phantoms began having serious mechanical issues and the decision was made to reroute it to Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. When it was determined the F-4 wouldn’t make it to land on its own, a KC-135 was called in to help out.
Ron Craft, then a 23-year-old assistant crew chief on his very first mission, recalled the incident vividly, describing how his KC-135 raced to where the fighter jet was and attempted to connect its refueling boom to the F-4 to use as a tow bar on three separate occasions, eventually getting it to latch and hold. During the entire ordeal, the fighter jet was losing power and descending and at one point prior to the KC-135 finally hooking up to the F-4 and slowly towing it more than 500 miles to Newfoundland, the two airplanes were only 1,500 feet above the crashing waves.
“We tried to slow down as much as possible to back up to him because he couldn’t go any faster and we couldn’t go any slower. The only thing keeping us airborne was we were nose-down in a dive,” Ron said. “Our boom operator, even in these conditions, was able to make a hook-up on the first shot. We used our refueling boom as a tow bar and brought him out of a dive and leveled him off at about 9,000 feet, but we must have gone a little too fast and it was a brute-force disconnect and he broke off and went into another dive. We had to do the whole scenario over again. The second time we made the hook-up and leveled off, we were only 1,500 feet off the water, watching waves break.”
Ron said that after the second attempt, the KC-135 went a little slower and a little higher.
“He still broke off. We had to go in for a third hook-up after two brute-force disconnects, which is completely unheard of,” he said. “During the first hook-up, I’m lying next to the boom operator, and we start to ascend and the dead weight of that fighter was bending our boom like you’re bringing a bigmouth bass out of the reservoir. It’s not supposed to bend. We thought we were going to watch it break off, but it held on.”
What stuck with Ron was the way his fellow crew members handled an unprecedented situation in the face of long odds of success.
“This was my first mission, but just seeing the professionalism of my entire crew, from the crew chief to the boom operator, navigator, co-pilot, pilot. It was so inspiring,” Ron said. “They were so collected as they were doing this and I had no idea that they didn’t do this every day. I was thinking, ‘My God, we’ve got the coolest job in the world.’ It wasn’t until later on that I learned that we were close to being the water ourselves. … This isn’t something you train for. We were basically making it up as we went along.”