Learning on the fly, the Nineteenth Air Force laid the foundation for modern expeditionary forces.
Moving entire U.S. Air Force units across continents and oceans requires an intricate dance involving dozens of aircraft, hundreds of people and thousands of supplies. Amateurs need not apply. Today aerial deployments to far-flung locations are considered a matter of routine, but how did the Air Force learn to do that?
The USAF’s modern expeditionary roots date to 1955, when the service as a whole was entrenched in Cold War doctrine that put atomic weapons on the highest rung of American strategy. Most of the leadership prized intercontinental missiles and massive bombers armed with powerful nuclear warheads over scrappy fighters capable of carrying smaller atomic weapons and conventional bombs. But there were some, including General Otto P. Weyland, commander of the Tactical Air Command, who were concerned that atomic weapons would do nothing to deter or help extinguish “brush fires,” limited conflicts that might pop up around the globe. Weyland wanted a mobile force that could deploy worldwide with a few hours’ notice.
In response, in July 1955, the USAF created the Nineteenth Air Force at Foster Air Force Base, near Victoria, Texas. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Viccellio, the tiny headquarters staff included 85 military and six civilian planners whose job was to develop procedures for deploying and using mobile forces in limited wars. Despite the fact that the Nineteenth owned no air units, planners experimented by combining parts of fighter, bomber, reconnaissance and communications squadrons into packages and sending them all over the world using aircraft from transport and refueling squadrons. Each package, called a Composite Air Strike Force (CASF), had the goal of delivering combat capability to a theater within a few days. And each CASF had to be able to operate unassisted for 30 days, until reinforcements could arrive.
Early on, one of the biggest problems facing planners was the immaturity of fighter aircraft refueling, in particular for the Nineteenth’s frontline fighter, the North American F-100. The Super Sabre had a probe that fit into a basket-shaped receptacle called a drogue, which was attached to the tanker via a long hose. But Air Force tankers didn’t receive the drogues until the summer of 1956. Once the tankers were finally equipped for training the Sabre pilots, it was the blind leading the blind as the pilots tried to figure out the refueling process. F-100 pilots at Foster AFB, including retired Lt. Cols. Arnold Ebneter (my father) and Ted Workman, both recalled that positioning their jets to plug the probe into the basket proved much harder than had been anticipated. As Workman said: “The refueling probe had design problems—the probe was on the right wing, and it was too short, so we couldn’t see it as we tried to stab it into the basket. They fixed it later [by making the probe longer], but early pilots had to figure out visual cues for where to place the basket so they could hit it.”
Many pilots struggled to master the process. Instead of sliding the probe smoothly into the basket, they often slammed into it, resulting in cracked canopies, gouged airframes and unhappy maintenance crews. When they did manage to hook up with the tankers, some Sabre pilots inadvertently ripped baskets and hoses off tankers and flew home with them still attached. Refueling turned out to be so difficult that it terrified some fliers. Workman remembered one pilot was so nervous about an upcoming refueling mission that while taxiing to the runway he rode his brakes hard, blowing two tires.
Even getting the F-100s properly lined up behind the tankers could be a challenge. On one six-hour flight in August 1956, Ebneter recalled that the five tankers they rendezvoused with over the East Coast were flying in a trailing formation resembling a drawn-out conga line. “Somehow, an Eastern Airlines Constellation got into the string,” he said, “and there was a bit of confusion until the flight lead decided the Connie wouldn’t give him any gas.” After that, planners told the tankers to fly in a line-abreast formation that would be easier to maintain.
By September 1956, TAC thought the Nineteenth was ready for a practice deployment to Europe. Dubbed Mobile Baker, the operation would involve moving fighters, reconnaissance aircraft and associated equipment and personnel across the Atlantic, deploying from bases on the East Coast and in the South.
The planners thought small on this exercise: The fighters hopscotched their way to Europe. Ebneter’s logbook shows that on September 16 they flew from Foster to Dover AFB, Del., and then on to Ernest Harmon Air Base, Newfoundland. Three days later they flew nonstop to Sidi Slimane, in French Morocco, a trip that took about five hours, including refueling over the Azores. From Sidi Slimane, units scattered to locations in France, Germany and Italy. Participating in Mobile Baker were F-100Cs from the 450th Fighter Day Wing at Foster; Republic F-84Fs from the 366th Fighter Bomber Wing at England AFB, La.; RF-84Fs from the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB, S.C.; and Douglas B-66s from the 17th Bomb Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Support aircraft included tankers from the 429th and 622nd Air Refueling squadrons at Langley AFB, Va., and England AFB, along with Douglas C-124 transports from the 63rd Troop Carrier Wing at Donaldson AFB, S.C.
The last leg of the Atlantic crossing was grueling for the fighter pilots, who had to spend long hours in cramped cockpits wearing suffocating “poopy suits” in case they landed in freezing water after ejecting. Once they reached Europe, however, there was plenty of time for sightseeing and souvenir collecting, including the always-popular bottles of liquor. During the return trip, the fliers stashed their booty in one of several roomy gun and ammunition bays in their aircraft.
Ebneter remembered that most of the Mobile Baker pilots purchased the legal one-gallon limit of duty-free liquor to bring back home. But one man bought three gallons of scotch, placing his “legal” scotch in his heated ammunition bay, then secreted the other bottles in the unheated gun bays. It apparently hadn’t occurred to him that alcohol might freeze after 2½ hours at 40,000 feet. The frozen scotch expanded and broke the bottles. Then, during his descent for landing, the liquor melted. When the Dover customs inspector reached his aircraft after landing, the would-be smuggler stared in dismay at the scotch streaming out of his gun bays. The inspector looked at the intact bottles in the ammunition bay, scowled and asked him pointedly, “Anything else to declare?” The dejected flier looked away from his contraband pooling on the tarmac and responded, “Not anymore.”
Pilots weren’t the only ones who had to learn the ropes during deployment; maintenance and support personnel were also crucial to the mission’s success. Marvin Atchison, an F-100 crew chief in the late 1950s, still remembers the lessons passed on to him by his predecessors. In addition to keeping a toolbox and a B4 bag packed and ready to go in his barracks, he learned from seasoned crew chiefs to stuff small parts into his pockets—unauthorized parts in toolboxes were verboten.
Whenever a deployment kicked off, the first thing the crew chiefs did was attach 450-gallon drop tanks to the F-100s. Atchison said of watching the aircraft depart: “It was nerve-wracking. The planes were so heavy I didn’t think they would get off.”
Although Nineteenth Air Force planners deemed Mobile Baker a success, they wanted to do even more. The next step was to fly nonstop from the States to Europe. Since such an exercise would involve two or three aerial refuelings and eight hours of flying time, the 450th began practicing eight-hour flights from Foster around the U.S.
Ebneter and Workman participated in one eight-hour practice flight in April 1957 that must have left the planners wondering whether they would ever work the kinks out of the system. As the flight of eight F-100s neared Oklahoma City on their last leg, they found a line of thunderstorms between them and Foster. Since Tinker AFB was nearby, the command post directed the pilots to land there instead. But Tinker’s long runway was closed for maintenance, leaving only a shorter 7,000-foot runway. As a result, mission commander Colonel Carlos Talbot told his crews to lighten their aircraft by using the afterburners to get rid of excess fuel.
Talbot and his wingman went in first, landing with no problems. But when Ebneter landed in the third plane, his drag chute didn’t deploy. As he braked, he locked the F-100’s right wheel, sending out a shower of sparks. Even though he maneuvered as far to the right of the runway as possible, rescue crews quickly surrounded him with firetrucks, rendering that runway unusable too.
Not to worry: The commercial airport in Oklahoma City, only a few miles away, had three long runways, so the five remaining pilots headed there, including Workman, who would be last to land. Again the first two pilots landed with no problems, but the drag chute on the third aircraft failed to deploy, and its pilot also locked his brakes. The tower instructed the remaining two to land on another runway, and they added power and raised their landing gear to get into position. But with all the confusion, pilot number four forgot to lower his gear again. He touched down on his belly, sliding to a stop exactly at the intersection of the last remaining runway, closing both runways.
In less than 15 minutes, Talbot’s men had damaged three F-100s and closed every suitable runway within 100 miles of Oklahoma City. Workman, by this time low on fuel, returned to Tinker and managed to touch down safely on the usable side of Ebneter’s runway. To no one’s surprise, the accident board found that stress and fatigue had played a major role in the gear-up landing. It became another lesson learned for the Nineteenth’s planners.
By the fall of 1957, the Nineteenth was ready to take on Asia as well. Mobile Zebra was the first attempt to deploy a gaggle of 47 aircraft across the Pacific. In early November, F-100s, B-66s and McDonnell F-101s flew to their staging area at George AFB, Calif. Nine B-66s were the first to depart for the Asian theater, but only three managed to make it all the way to the Philippines. Five had to turn back after missing a tanker rendezvous, while another apparently experienced mechanical problems at Wake Island. The three Destroyers that made it received a resounding welcome as they flew over Manila prior to landing at Clark AFB.
Next to take off from George were 20 F-100Cs from Foster, led by Brig. Gen. Avelin Tacon. The plan was to rendezvous with Boeing KB-50 tankers 700 miles off the West Coast, then continue to Hickam AFB, Hawaii. But as the fighters pulled up to the tankers, pandemonium broke out. The tanker pilots had never tried to refuel so many airplanes at once, and hadn’t rehearsed radio procedures. When the lead pilot’s radio failed, no one knew what to do and they all started trying to talk on the radio at once. In the ensuing chaos, not everyone managed to refuel. As a result, only 14 airplanes headed to Hawaii, while the others limped back to George with barely enough fuel to make it there.
Ebneter, who had been designated as a spare for the mission, suddenly found himself headed for Hawaii. Workman, also a spare, flew back to George but was ordered to Hawaii the next day. He recalled that when he joined up on the KB-50s the second day, the “antique” tankers were quite a sight to behold, with many having “feathered props, and smoke pouring out behind others.” After arriving in Hawaii, the Foster jets made their way to Japan, refueling over Guam and Wake Island.
Arlie Blood, now a retired colonel, led 16 F-100Ds from Clovis (later Cannon) AFB, N.M., which left George after the Foster jets were underway. Following a day in Hawaii, where the pilots bought aloha shirts to wear during their briefings, the Clovis F-100s headed for Clark. In his memoir Only Angels Have Wings, Blood would recall that the aircrews stayed busy once they arrived at their deployed bases, logging daily practice bombing runs in Korea. On the return trip, Blood’s F-100s set a new speed record between Tokyo and Honolulu, covering the distance in about 6½ hours. First Lieutenant William Starr, in Blood’s command, brought home an unusual souvenir: the remains of a refueling drogue he had ripped off a tanker between Hawaii and California.
After Mobile Zebra, the Nineteenth planners were confident they could deploy anywhere in the world. They got their chance in 1958 during the Lebanon crisis. On July 15, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered Composite Air Strike Force Bravo to deploy to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Within two hours F-100s from Myrtle Beach, S.C., roared into the air, arriving 13 hours later in Turkey. CASF Bravo eventually deployed 860 personnel and 202 tons of equipment to Incirlik in less than four days.
Fortunately, the Lebanon crisis ended quickly. But the speedy dispatch of men and materiel to Turkey was seen as proof that the mobile rapid-deployment concept was effective. Further successes followed, with a deployment to the Far East in response to clashes between Taiwan and China that same year, and during the 1961 Berlin Crisis, when a CASF rushed 210 USAF and Air National Guard planes to Europe.
Later in 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara integrated CASF efforts into those of the Strategic Army Corps, with the resultant merger redesignated the United States Strike Command. The Nineteenth Air Force’s CASF experiments had laid the foundation for the modern USAF expeditionary forces, deploying the right assets to the right places as needed.
Seattle-based writer Eileen A. Bjorkman is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and flight test engineer. For further reading, she suggests: Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1960, Volume I, by Robert Frank Futrell; Anatomy of a Reform: The Expeditionary Air Force, by Richard G. Davis; and The Air Force Role in Five Crises, by Richard Nalty.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.