Thursday, November 14, 2013


In the early days of the Cold War, Strategic Air Command was America's atomic fist, poised to send hundreds of bombers streaming toward the Soviet Union for nuclear combat, toe to toe with the Russkies.

To fuel these bombers on their way, SAC employed the Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker, first flown in 1950. Unfortunately, the dawn of the air-to-air refueling era in the USAF coincided with the dawn of the jet era, and ungainly-looking, waddling Stratotankers were soon tasked with topping off the tanks on sleek, swept-wing B-47 Stratojets and then the new B-52 Stratofortresses.

The bulbous "double-decker" look is because it was developed from the C-97 Stratofreighter, a cargo-carrying development of the B-29/B-50. If it looks familiar, it's because the civilian variant, the Boeing 377 airliner, was the aircraft from which the famous "Super Guppies" were made.

Even with four Pratt & Whitney radials churning the air with 14,000 combined horsepower, the difference in airspeed between the flying gas station and its customers was such that various tricks were employed to match airspeeds more closely, such as the B-52 lowering flaps and its rear landing gear, or refueling in a shallow dive.

On the left, a four-row Wasp Major: 28 cylinders displacing 4,362½ cubic inches and thundering out 3,500 supercharged horsepower. On the right: a hair dryer.
The KC-97 only operated in front line service with Strategic Air Command until the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker could be phased into service in 1957 to replace it, but it soldiered on in Tactical Air Command units, and in the Guard and Reserve until 1978. In the early '60s, jet engine pods were added to create the KC-97L, mimicking the solution that had been used to allow Tactical Air Command KB-50s to fly fast enough to top up jet fighters.


Paul said...

I remember reading about JATO packs to help the heavies get off the ground like a Fokker stork. We had some balls back then, no doubt.

Pretty plane.

Erich505 said...

My father-in-law worked in one of these for a while. :)

Ian said...

Have you ever been to the Pima Air Park in Tucson? They have a really impressive collection of Cold War aircraft of all sizes and nationalities...

Anonymous said...

There were also tanker variants of the B29 and B50 (itself a B29 variant), the KB-29 and KB-50. These were REAL stopgap tankers, mostly used for refueling fighters, until there were sufficient tanker fleets to handle the load.

Unknown said...

Brownie points to whoever can explain the reason for the double-lobe fuselage.

Anonymous said...

The 128th Air Guard flew these out of Mitchell Field here until the mid-Sixties.
I got to tour the inside of one when I was 9. Our Cub Scout leader was a Tech Sgt.

Tam said...


The original cargo version had two pressurized decks, right?

Toastrider said...

Where are these pics from, btw?

Tam said...

Grissom Air Museum.

LCB said...

Today I was watching Strategic Air Command, a Jimmy Stewart movie. OK movie with very beautiful flying scenes of the B-36 and B-47.

Jimmy was in the Air Force reserves and believed in what he was "selling" in this movie.

Unknown said...


I believe the passenger version had upper and lower pressurization - not sure about the military version.

I worked for the Lazy B many years and thought I knew why the fuselage was the way it was but I was wrong. Apparently the military wanted a bigger cargo version of the 307 (which was basically a B-17 with a larger fuselage) so they grafted a larger upper fuselage onto the B-29. That was the basis for the KC-97 and the 377 passenger version.
They made it even bigger when NASA needed to transport rocket sections across the US.

Tam said...


"Jimmy was in the Air Force reserves and believed in what he was "selling" in this movie."

Yup. Stewart was more than just a reservist. He was already a Hollywood star when he enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps before the US entered the war. He got a commission and flew more than 20 missions over Nazi Germany and was awarded the DFC for his actions on the opening day of "Big Week".

LCB said...

Yeah...he's one of my heros, and I don't have many. I read "Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot" by Starr Smith last year, enjoyed it very much.

Compare him with the stars of today and, well...we have no stars today. Very few anyway.

Thing was, Jimmy did his duty and could have let it go. But he didn't. When he retired I believe he was a general of reserves. Yep. From Wiki:
"In 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on an Arc Light bombing mission during the Vietnam War. At the time of his B-52 flight, he refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation, as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve."

I remember reading somewhere that if you watch Stewarts movies before he went to war and compared them to after the war you'll notice a change. Deeper...more thoughtful...his characters often had a dark side that he had to fight.

Will said...


Check out Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Hell of a war story, probably the most highly decorated actor/warrior of WWII. His autobiography (pt 2) makes light of his many escapades in the ETO and MTO, but reading between the lines paints a picture of a dedicated individual.

Going to war pretty much ruined his appeal to the Hollywood insiders, and acting became a sideline for him, due to this.

Uncle Chunk said...

Thanks for the memories!
I 'wrenched' on these beasts for about 4 years.
Best years of my life! The last KC-97 rolled off the assembly line the same day as the first KC-135.