The terrorist attacks that took place at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington DC, and just outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 brought about changes in our country that we never thought we would see. For the first time in modern aviation history, all air traffic, except for military security planes were grounded. The skies were eerily void of contrails from planes, and the air lacked the sounds from them that we had become so used to that we almost didn’t notice the sounds anymore…unless, like me, you just like planes, and like to watch them.
Of course, eventually we would begin to see planes again, because we are a nation on the move and planes are essential. The planes began flying again, but with them came a lot more military planes. In most ways that was good, but with that came something else that I never expected to see…mid-air refueling. I have only seen this in action one time. I was on my way into my sister’s house and I looked up because I heard a plane. It was actually two planes…very close together. With 9-11 so fresh in my mind, my first thought was that I might be witnessing an attack above my head. I stood there and watched closely. The planes weren’t so high that you couldn’t see the refueling line as it connected one plane to the other. I was fascinated…and relieved…to witness that. I don’t know how many people have seen it, but my guess is that it isn’t many…at least outside of the aviation industry or the military. Of course, the planes were moving and I didn’t see the line being retracted, but I still felt rather privileged to see that technology in action.
Mid-air refueling is not something that is so new, in fact the first time a plane was refueled in mid-air was on this day, August 23,1923. The Airco DH.4 was a British two-seat biplane day bomber of World War I. It was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland for Airco, and was the first British two-seat light day-bomber to have an effective defensive armament. It first flew in August 1916 and entered service with the Royal Flying Corps in March 1917. The majority of DH.4s were actually built as general purpose two-seaters in the United States, for service with the American forces in France. The plane could do just about anything needed…except fly for an extended time period. Hence the name day-bomber. Then, all that changed when Captain Lowell Smith and Lieutenant John Richter received the first mid-air refueling on June 27, 1923, from a plane flown by 1st Lieutenant Virgil Hine and 1st Lieutenant Frank Seifert.
When we think of mid-air refueling, we picture something high tech, like what I saw, but the technology for it began in the 1920s. To me that seems incredible, but I guess that most inventions take time to develop. Time and hard work, but once they are developed, they can change the course of history. These days, planes are refueled like the two planes I saw and even a plane that refuels a helicopter, which I find completely amazing. The human mind has come up with so many inventions, and I think this one is among the greatest.