Aerial refueling … can go wrong, and at times it can be deadly.
Hoses breaking off, fuel spilling and mid-flight collisions are just some of the things that make aerial refueling dangerous.
And as we dig deeper into what happened with each mishap, you may finally understand why aircraft can safely refuel with their engines running and in presence of fuel leaks, while car engines need to be shut off in gas stations.
But what happened when a helicopter ran out of fuel in the middle of a category 1 hurricane is Not What You Think.
What Went Wrong
Now, that was close, if you ask me.
But what actually went wrong?
Any two large airplanes flying close by might find themselves in a dangerous situation.
This is due to aerodynamic forces experienced when in proximity.
In this case, the receiver aircraft was an E-3 Sentry.
As contact was made, the E-3 kept moving closer and when the retract limit on the boom was reached, it auto-disconnected.
But the E-3 was too close and too forward, so its bow wave pushed the tail of the tanker up.
A bow wave is a shockwave that forms in front and around the aircraft, similar to a ship’s bow wave, but for aircraft.
As the tail of the tanker pushed up, the auto-pilot trim couldn’t keep up and disengaged, causing the tanker to descend down toward the E-3.
Luckily, the E-3 Sentry quickly dived down, saving both aircraft.
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See, the amount of turbulence behind a tanker aircraft is substantial, so it’s very easy to overcorrect.
In this case, the helicopter pilot actually got lucky, because if the pilot had not pulled up that hard, the drogue may have been caught in the rotor blades, which could have been fatal.
But what happened to the helicopter, since it couldn’t refuel anymore?
Even if a helicopter runs out of fuel, it should still be able to land using autorotation.
As a helicopter descends with its engines off, the rotors continue spinning simply by the upward flow of air through the rotor blades.
Of course, if you lose the ability to refuel over enemy territory or in the middle of a hurricane, as you will see, things can get a bit more complicated.
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After contact, the hose went slack, which resulted in a whiplash.
It is critical for the hose to stay fully extended at all times, Otherwise resonance can occur which will break off the drogue.
Those other pilots are probably not too happy either.
Let’s hear the original audio: “Tony, I told him to take it easy on the “hose”.
When the hose breaks off, it can be sucked into the engine.
But this F-14s was lucky.
In a similar incident.
Onboard the Aircraft Carrier Uss Abraham Lincoln, an F-35c was damaged during an aerial refueling exercise when receiving fuel from an F/A-18..
The aerial refueling basket was ingested into the F-35’s intake.
Both aircraft were able to land safely.
However, the damage to the F-35 was more than two million dollars and was reported as a CLASS-A Mishap.
But if you think, 2 million dollars is an expensive trip to the gas station.
This next refueling incident cost the Us air force more than $150 million dollars.
On September 29th 2020, a KC-130J and an F-35 were conducting aerial refueling using the probe and drogue method, But then the unthinkable happened.
The two aircraft collided mid-air.
As the pilots later described, the whole thing lasted about a second.
That’s what she said the pilot.
It was so violent that the headsets flew off their heads.
The F-35 pilot immediately ejected and safely descended as he watched his aircraft plummet into the ground, resulting in a giant fireball.
Meanwhile, inside the Kc-130’s cockpit, the pilots came to a shocking realization: They still had control of the airplane.
Pilots declared an emergency to the air traffic controllers, stating that their aircraft had collided with the F-35, they had lost two engines and they might even be on fire For the next 12 minutes.
The captain, along with the co-pilot, conducted an emergency descent and belly landed on a field in a remote area in California.
The collision had destroyed both of the Kc-130s. starboard engines punched a hole in the plane but left the primary flight control surfaces operational, which allowed the pilots to safely land.
Additionally, the tanker was leaking fuel from the pods, but most of it- about 7,200 gallons- remained in the tanker during landing because, due to time constraints and the possibility of fire, there was no opportunity to dump the fuel.
Originally, the pilots intended to land in Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal California, but 10 minutes after the collision, the aircraft made an uncontrolled right turn.
As a result, the pilots decided to land in one of the cauliflower fields.
According to the pilots, it wasn’t like in the movies.
It was relatively smooth and they came to a stop pretty quickly.
All 8 crew members made it out alive without any serious injuries.
Both pilots later earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Us military’s second highest medal of Valor that an aviator can get.
This time the crew were lucky, as you can see, pieces of the propellers missing A few years prior to this incident, 16 personnel lost their lives when a corroded propeller blade came off mid-flight.
But have you ever wondered why?
It is unsafe to refuel your car while the engine is running?
Yet aircraft are routinely refueled mid-flight, Not to mention fuel leaks and static electricity sparks that are frequently produced on initial contact of the tanker and the receiver aircraft.
When refueling modern cars, turning the engine off is more of a precaution in order to minimize distractions, Just like how you shouldn’t be on your cell phone while refueling, so you don’t end up doing this With that said, sometimes running a car while fueling can result in a fire, be it a hot catalytic converter or a side exhaust on older cars.
As a rule of thumb, you wanna turn off the engine, stay away from your phone and avoid smoking, And don’t go in and out of your car, because it could build up static electricity on your body and clothing … and a spark can turn into a flame.
You see, gasoline has a flash point of -50f, while Kerosene has a flashpoint of 100f.
This fact alone makes Kerosene much safer compared to gasoline.
During aerial refueling, both aircraft are moving at high speeds, which means any spilled fuel dissipates quickly.
Fuel is more than a dozen feet away from the heat of the engines and, biggest of all, up high it gets cold.
Roughly for each 1000m the temperature drops about 5c, meaning that at an altitude of 5000m the temperature is 25C lower than it is on the ground.
This means that during aerial refueling kerosene is way below its flash point, So sparks like this between the basket and the nozzle won’t ignite anything, even though sparks could generate as much as 10,000 volts.
But that said, sparks could pose a serious threat to the avionics onboard the aircraft.
For this reason, all aircraft that engage in aerial refueling have an electronic pulse protection system installed to handle those static discharges.
The Perfect Storm
The day before Halloween in 1991,, an Hh-60G Pave Hawk Helicopter with the call sign “Jolly 110” headed out into a hurricane that became known as “the perfect storm”, And yes, there is a movie with the same name, starring George Clooney.
The mission of the five-man crew was to rescue a sailing vessel 250 miles offshore.
A weather buoy offshore of Halifax, Nova Scotia, detected a 100-ft wave, the largest ever recorded wave in that part of the Atlantic.
As a result of severe weather, Jolly 110 was unable to finish the rescue mission and turned around.
Jolly had already refueled three times from an Hc-130 Hercules, but had to do one more refueling to make it back to the mainland.
The pilot attempted refueling more than 30 times, But due to extreme turbulence and lack of visibility, both drogues had been damaged.
Unable to refuel and with only 20 minutes left, the pilot decided to ditch the helicopter in the middle of the “perfect storm”, while the engines were still running, As four of the crew members jumped overboard, the Pave Hawk was hit by a wave and the chopper ended up in the water.
The pilot was 15 feet underwater but was able to escape the sinking helicopter At this point.
The crew were stranded 90 miles offshore in 100 knot winds and 80-foot waves.
Five hours later, Uscgc Tamaroa reached the crash site.
4 airmen were rescued, but Pararescue Jumper Arden Rick Smith was sadly never found.