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No Fighter Aces, But These Pilots Essential for Air Raids

January 26, 1991

AN AIRBASE IN THE PERSIAN GULF (AP) _ There are no little Iraqi flags painted on the side of the tan, cigar- shaped plane, but a row of small black gas pumps, one for each combat refueling mission.

Are the British crews of the Royal Air Force’s flying gas stations jealous of Jaguar and Tornado pilots who whiz about the skies, zapping targets in Iraq and Kuwait?

″Perhaps in peacetime, but not now,″ said Flight Lt. Stu Mitchell, pilot of one of the 55th Squadron’s Victor K-2 tankers.

″I can do without the hot lead, thank you,″ said Syd Buxton, his co- pilot.

″Having said that,″ Mitchell reflected, ″if they’d let me fly F-14s off a carrier, I’d go for that.″

In the snug cockpit of the Victor, Mitchell and his crew prepared for the flight, watched the airfield and listened to the radio chatter.

This day’s mission was to fly to a specified area and altitude in the northern Persian Gulf, rendezvous with two Jaguar fighter on a mission and help out any other friendly aircraft in the area that needed fuel. Five tankers from other nations were assigned to the same area.

Navigator Jeff Hesketh chuckled about a recent incident when an American hooked up on the sly.

″The co-pilot noticed the aircraft was losing fuel,″ Hesketh said, and air electronics officer Ed Billings confirmed an aircraft had connected without notice.

″There was an A-6 taking fuel,″ Hesketh said. ″We call that getting raped. So, he stole some and we gave him some.″

A bank of controls for the fuel system is between the pilot and co-pilot positions. The plane carries 123,000 pounds of fuel, or about 15,000 gallons.

The navigator and electronics man face backward.

Squadron leader Dick Druitt and his crew had a busy time earlier in the day, servicing Jaguars and doing drop-in business from Canada and the United States.

The AWACs reconnaissance plane controlling the area asked Druitt if he could take care of four Canadian CF-18s, then a pair of U.S. Navy F-14s stopped by, followed a bit later by a single F-14.

Finally, the Jaguars came back for another dip.

″We gave away about 10,000 gallons,″ Druitt said.

His Victors use what is called the NATO probe and droge system - trailing hoses with metal baskets on the end. Aircraft fixed with appropriate probes can snuggle up and take on fuel.

U.S. Air Force tankers employ a flying boom which seeks out the aircraft.

As a result, the Victors can refuel British, Canadian and U.S. navy planes, but not those of the U.S. Air Force.

A Victor can serve two customers at a time from wing hoses at a rate of 1,200 pounds a minute, or a larger central hose can refuel one at about 4,000 pounds a minute.

Refueling fighters is something of a step down for Britain’s venerable Victor, once a premier nuclear bomber. When Royal Navy submarines took over the nuclear duties, Victors were converted into gas pumps.

The sleek, swept-wing planes are so old they almost seem new. Since there is only the one squadron, Druitt said, few foreigners have ever seen a Victor.

″When someone asks us what it is, we say it is the British version of the Stealth,″ he said.

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