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Before hose-and-reel refueling took hold, the Navy tried a system of rigid tubing. This did not end well. (US Navy)

Above & Beyond: Warner and the Whale

How we turned the A3D into a tanker

Things were going smoothly when for some reason, with the hose fully extended and the refueler aircraft standing by, the system shut off. No retraction, no extension, nothing. We had considered this possibility during the planning stage: We had a cutting device called the guillotine that could be activated from the cockpit. Now, even the guillotine wouldn’t cooperate.

“Hold it,” Warner said. “I’ll go aft and see what I can do.” He couldn’t fit into the bomb bay wearing a parachute, so he unbuckled and left the chute in his seat. “Now look,” he said, “I’ll have to walk on the bomb-bay doors to get to the reel, so for Christ’s sake, stay away from that bomb-bay door switch.”

We depressurized, and away went fearless Warner, chuteless. I told ground control what was going on. I supposed they just shrugged their shoulders.

In a few minutes Warner came on the intercom. “I’m at the reel and it looks okay. But to get where I have to, I’ll be standing on the doors. Got it?” I confirmed, then glanced at the bomb-bay doors switch and light.

Suddenly I froze. The bomb-bay doors light came on—the doors were open. I prayed to hear Warner’s voice.

Then, the sweetest words ever to come over an intercom. “Holy Christ, can’t you see my chute in my seat? What in hell are you trying to do?”

He told me later that before putting two feet on the doors, he used one foot to tap them. Nothing happened, so, holding fast to a structure, he started to stand with both feet when the doors popped open. Fortunately he had a good hold while staring open-mouthed at the lakebed 15,000 feet beneath us.

I told him I hadn’t even come close to the switch—“Must have been a glitch.” He didn’t answer. He was watching Edwards Air Force Base slide by below. Finally: “I’m going to chop the damned hose off with the axe and come forward.” I felt the hose and drogue release, and Warner slid back in the cockpit. He buckled into his parachute and said only, “Let’s go home.”

Chase reported another hose whipping through the air. “More junk for the lakebed.”

After I landed, we headed for engineering. Warner uttered not a word. He wasn’t even sweating. I was soaked. I tried to convince Warner I hadn’t touched the switch. No response.

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