Above & Beyond: Shooting Up a Shooting Star

There’s more than one way to dump extra fuel before landing

(David Clark)
Air & Space Magazine

Fresh out of fighter-bomber school in May 1952, I flew to Japan and caught a Douglas C-47 to my new home in South Korea: Base K-13,

35 miles south of Seoul and the home of the Eighth Fighter Bomber Wing, 35th Fighter Bomber Squadron. We were equipped with Lockheed F-80C Shooting Stars; on the other side of the field, sharing the same single runway, was the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, which flew North American F-86 Sabre jets.

My first flight at K-13 was a ride with an instructor pilot in a Lockheed T-33, the two-seat trainer version of the F-80. The instructor showed me around the area and took me up to the frontlines between the troops of North Korea and those of the United Nations. We returned to K-13 just as the tip tanks ran dry and shot a few touch-and-go landings. My next flight, a solo run in an F-80, was scheduled for that Sunday, right after the squadron’s monthly flying safety meeting.

At the meeting, we were briefed that sometime during the previous month, the pilot of a Republic F-84 Thunderjet had had a problem with an external wing tank that wouldn’t feed and could not be jettisoned. In an attempt to drain the tank of fuel, his wingman had flown under the faulty tip tank, opened his canopy, and tried to fire his handgun at the jammed tank to put holes in it to let it drain. But he had aimed too high. The 200-mph slipstream snatched the gun from his hand. (We never learned what ultimately happened to the F-84.) We were briefed on the incident because the F-80 canopy could also be opened in flight, so if one of our pilots had a bad tank, he could try the same thing. Landing with one full tip tank and one empty, or gone, was nearly impossible. At landing speed there was not enough aileron control to ensure that you wouldn’t drag the heavy tank on the runway, and a ruptured tank would spill fuel, melting the asphalt runway surface. At worst the airplane could cartwheel and crash.

After the safety meeting, I found my assigned airplane and made a preflight inspection. The crew chief had already done so before me, and a squadron flight instructor did the same right after me. Then I climbed in, cranked up the engine, taxied out, and took off on my first solo flight in Korea.

As soon as the tires left the runway, I could feel that the left wing was heavy. I had taxied and taken off using fuel from the tip tanks, but apparently the left one wasn’t feeding.

The F-80’s internal fuel tanks had electric fuel pumps to feed fuel to the main fuselage tank. But in the external wing tanks, compressed air, bled from the engine compressor to the tip tanks, forced fuel through lines to the fuselage tank. I could see that the fuel cap on the left tank wasn’t sealed—something three preflight inspections had missed—so air pressure could not build up in the tip tank and therefore the fuel wouldn’t feed.

As soon as I sensed the left wing’s heaviness, I stopped the right tip tank’s fuel flow, called the control tower, and suggested that I return and land immediately while the airplane was still pretty well balanced. The officer in the tower ordered me to fly to the bombing range, a small island about a half-mile out in the Yellow Sea, and jettison the errant tank.

En route, I used about half the fuel in the right tip tank, so that when I jettisoned the full left tank, the right one would not grossly unbalance me.

I arrived over the range at about 10,000 feet. The tip tanks were mounted on bomb release shackles, so I set up the bomb release panel to let go of the left tip tank and hit the release button. The tank did not jettison.

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