gallons of gasoline. On August 27 and 28, with 14 refuellings, Smith and Richter stayed aloft for 37 hours and15 minutes.The future of in-flight refuelling looked promising until November 18, 1923, when some aviators attemptedrefuelling over Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a carnival exhibition. The hose from the tanker caught in the propeller of the receiver, and the tanker crashed, killing Lt. P. T. Wagner. His death endedAmerican experiments with refuelling for several years.In the fall of 1928 a group of Army Air Service officers decided to try again. They modified a Fokker C-2 for aerial refuelling and called it Question Mark because no one knew how long it could stay in the air. Animpressive accomplishment for duration aloft had been set in June 1928 by the Belgian air force, which usedrefuelling to keep a De Havilland biplane in the air for more than 60 hours. (As the aviation historian Richard K.
Smith has written, “Given the minuscule size of Belgium … the purpose of this operation is unclear.”)
The tests would demand reliable tankers, which were created by modifying a pair of Douglas C-1s. Each wasgiven two 150-gallon fuel tanks and a trapdoor to drop out a 50-foot hose. (The same method was also used tolower and raise baskets containing food, oil, clothing, messages, and tools and parts for repairs.) To refuel, thetanker crew dangled the hose near Question Mark while the two planes flew at 80 miles per hour with as little
as 15 feet separating them. One of Question Mark’s crew members would st
ick his head and shoulders out of a hatch in the roof, behind the wing, and grab the fuel hose. Then he would manhandle it through the hole and
line it up with the tank’s opening.
During the design stages, crew members had feared that pulling the fuel hose through the air could create
static electricity and cause a spark when the nozzle touched the fuel tank’s opening. So the designers wrapped
a copper wire around the nozzle and mounted a copper plate near the opening in Question Mark. Beforerefuelling, a member of the receiving crew touched the hose to the copper plate to discharge any static. Theproject started at Boiling Field, in Washington, D.C., but winter arrived before the tests could get under way, sothe group moved to Rockwell Field, near San Diego, in mid-December.Keeping Question Mark airborne required communication between it and the tanker, but airborne radio was stillin its infancy, so the team devised an array of cumbersome techniques for keeping in touch. For air-to-air signals between the planes, the crew members wrote messages on blackboards or used hand signals duringthe day; at night they used flashlight signals or attached written messages to the end of the gasoline hose.When members of the ground crew needed to communicate with Question Mark, they wrote on the side of thetanker. To send a message to the ground, the Question Mark crew put it in a weighted bag and dropped it.After months of preparation on both coasts, Question Mark was ready for testing. On January 1, 1929, it tookoff from Lot Angeles Metropolitan Airport, in Van Nuys, California, with Maj. Carl Spatz (who in 1937 would
change the spelling of his last name to Spaatz to encourage the proper pronunciation, “Spots”), Capt. Ira
Eaker, Lt. Harry Halverson, Lt. Elwood Quesada, and Sgt. R. W. Hooe aboard. It was quite an illustrious crew.
All except Hooe eventually became generals, with Spaatz serving as the Air Force’s first chief of staff and
Quesada heading the Federal Aviation Agency. Capt. Ross Hoyt, flying one of the refuelling planes, also went
on to become a general, and today the Brig. Gen. Ross Hoyt Award is given annually to the Air Force’s top
A QUESTION MARK CREWMAN WOULD STICK HIS HEAD THROUGH A HATCH, GRAB THE HOSE, PULL ITINSIDE, AND INSERT IT IN THE FUEL TANK.
The team planned to refuel over the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, where Georgia Tech and California were
playing. (This was the game in which Roy (“Wrong Way”) Riegels, a California lineman, picked up a fumble
and ran it toward his own end
zone, resulting in a safety that provided the eventual margin in Tech’s 8
-7victory.) With the hose stretched between the planes and fuel flowing, Eaker held Question Mark steady.Suddenly turbulence forced the planes apart, and the hose swung wildly inside Question Mark. Gushing fuelsoaked Spaatz. Eaker jumped up from the controls, turned the plane over to Quesada, and told him to head