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USAFA grad, Vietnam vet shares story of historic flight

Lt. Col. Dick Trail

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Trail, a U.S. Air Force veteran, inspects the wings of a private aircraft March 9, 2018, at Yingling Aviation fixed-base operator in Wichita, Kansas. Trail and his crew performed a triple air refueling over the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alan Ricker)

MCCONNEL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- During a recent visit to Wichita, an air refueling icon shared his experience of how his crew in Vietnam performed history’s first tri-level refueling.

“Learning about the accomplishments of the Airmen that have gone before us helps today’s Airmen understand where we’ve come from and establishes our culture,” said Maj. Brittany Gilmer, 22nd Air Refueling Wing director of staff. “I met retired Lt. Col. Trail at the 2012 Airlift Tanker Association symposium. The first time I heard [his] story, I was very inspired by the innovative actions taken by a KC-135 crew.”

A 1939 J-3 Cub on a small farm in McCook, Nebraska, was retired Lt. Col. Dick Trail’s first stepping stone in his flying career at the age of 16.

After being part of the first graduating class at the Air Force Academy in 1959, he started his career as a pilot. He didn’t stop at the J-3, but continued to fly many different air frames, such as the C-47 Skytrain, T-28 Trojan, T-33 Shooting Star, T-34 Mentor, T-39 Sabreliner, KC-97 Stratofreighter, and eventually, the KC-135 Stratotanker.

Trail, a captain at the time, received the MacKay Trophy with his aircrew in 1967 for transferring fuel from a KC-135 to a Navy A-3 Skywarrior, which simultaneously allowed the naval tanker to refuel a Navy F-8 Crusader. This was the first air-refueling that involved three aircraft being connected at the same time.

The aircrew performed this dangerous task in order to save Navy personnel from having to eject over enemy territory.

The emergency situation arose after the KC-135 crew refueled two Air Force F-104 Starfighters. The two naval tankers were low on fuel, and one of them had only three minutes of fuel remaining when Trail and his crew arrived.

“In the Gulf of Tonkin, we got turned over to a Navy controller who asked us if we could head north for a possible emergency refueling because somebody was having trouble up there,” said Trail. “We had never refueled a Navy aircraft before.”

Trail’s crew had to descend to accommodate the naval aircraft’s inability to climb to a higher altitude.

“[The Navy tanker] had 4,000 pounds [of fuel] on board that he could offload, but he couldn’t use it,” said Trail. “He slid up, and as we were pumping gas to him, two F-8s were coming out at the same time. The F-8 just [flew] right in behind the Navy tanker and hooked up!”

After refueling the naval tankers, the KC-135 aircrew received a transmission about two Navy F-4 Phantom IIs needing fuel.

“When [the Navy aircraft] went away the Air Force guys wanted fuel again, so we climbed back up and refueled them, but then we didn’t have enough gas to get to Okinawa,” the veteran said.

They decided to land in South Vietnam at Da Nang Air Base. The crew landed safely with 10,000 pounds of fuel remaining and 70 passengers on board.

Trail said that a brigadier general approached the crew after the landing and asked questions for nearly three hours concerning the authentication of the Navy’s request for refueling and if they were authorized to do the emergency refueling.

“No,” said Trail. “We didn’t ask any questions; we just went and did it.”

“Our philosophy was that we did what we had to do,” Trail continued.

The KC-135 crew saved six Navy aircraft and their crews from having to eject into the gulf.

“Even though they broke regulations, they made a life-saving decision that was eventually applauded,” said Gilmer. “At the end of the day, the members of that crew weren’t afraid to make a decision, take action and then accept responsibility.”

After all the meetings and briefings, Trail shared that he realized they weren’t in trouble until an Airman appeared and began asking them questions.

“He had these [aircraft] models, took pictures of us and he wanted to know the ins and outs [of the mission],” laughed Trail. “That was our first clue that we weren’t in bad trouble.”

After they returned home, the crew was awarded for their meritorious flight. They were presented with the Mackay Trophy by the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John McConnell, in 1968. The Mackay Trophy has been received by multiple aircrews for courageous and historical aviation acts since it was established in 1911.

The flight in the Gulf of Tonkin consisted of 14 refuelings for eight different aircraft and an estimated 50,000 pounds of fuel was offloaded to the receivers.

“Air refueling is revolutionary,” said Trail. “It revolutionized the Air Force. We can have fewer fighters and fewer bombers, but air refueling is a force multiplier.”

Trail said that he thinks it is wonderful that the KC-135 is still being used to conduct life-saving missions today, even years after his historical flight.

“Tanker crews get the job done,” said Gilmer. “As retired Lt. Col. Trail said, ‘Our philosophy was that we did what we had to do.’ That is still true today. It’s that aspect of tanker culture that I’m most proud of as a KC-135 pilot.”