"When I spent time on alert when the Cold War was on, I had to spend a week underground in a bunker,” says Chris Hoctor, former crew member of a United States Air Force refuelling tanker aircraft and author of Voices from an Old Warrior, recalling his time in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the 1980s.
“Our job was to get the B-52 bombers pretty far towards their targets. Then we had predesignated airfields to land on in Europe and Japan because we would be pretty low on fuel ourselves. The worse-case scenario was that we would have to give the bombers all of our fuel and then jump out.”
Tankers are fuel stations in the sky for bombers, transport aircraft, much smaller fighters, and now drones, allowing them to fly much farther than they would normally managed.
Despite its unglamorous reputation, in-flight refuelling has played a key role in crucial strategic missions, as Hoctor describes, as well as in the conflicts in the Middle East, famine relief and response to natural disasters. The history of the last 60 to 70 years would have looked very different without the capability it gives to the air forces of the world to extend the range of their planes.