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This Day in History: The U.S. Army Air Service & the first midair refueling

On this day in 1923, two biplanes conduct the first successful midair refueling. Well, sort of. They made the first midair transfer using a hose. Would you believe that another aviator had previously refueled a plane by walking on its wings while it was in flight?!

Early aviators were some part genius and some part crazy, weren’t they?

Wesley May pulls himself up onto the Jenny's wing

Wesley “Wes” May, Frank Hawks, and Earl Daugherty were the first to demonstrate that a plane could be fueled while it was in flight. They were barnstormers, which made them used to crazy stunts. Wes already knew that he could walk on the wings of a plane: He’d done it many times before. Why not walk on a plane’s wing carrying a big container of gas on his back?

The trio set off on November 12, 1921.

Frank was the pilot of the first plane, a Lincoln Standard biplane that carried Wes in the passenger seat. Meanwhile, Earl took off in a Curtiss Jenny. The two pilots reached an altitude of 1,000 feet, then Wes swung into action.

By that point, Earl had his Jenny flying just slightly above Frank’s plane. Wes’s job was to climb out on the wing of the Lincoln Standard, moving towards the wingtip. Then he would grab the bottom of the Jenny’s wing and pull himself up onto Earl’s plane. (See picture.)

He was pulling himself up onto a wing, in midair, with a 30-pound container of fuel strapped to his back. Just a little bit of muscle and daring needed for this feat?

Amazingly, though, he made it. Once he was aboard the Jenny, Wes walked toward the cockpit so he could add his fuel to the plane. The process had worked, but it took too long and was too inefficient. Also, how many aviators can walk on wings?

Wes, Frank, and Earl could claim title to the first midair fuel transfer, but a new process would be needed.

The U.S. Army Air Service stepped in and accomplished exactly that less than two years later. Its more proper refueling maneuver was completed on June 27, 1923.

The Army made its attempt with two Airco DH-4B biplanes. In each plane, the pilots and passengers sat in an open-air cockpit. Thus, both passengers were left free to deal with the refueling hose: First Lieutenant Frank Seifert released the fueling hose from one plane, flying above, while Lieutenant John Richter grabbed it from his spot in the plane below. Seifert began transferring fuel when he received a signal from Richter that everything was good to go.

The effort was a smashing success: 75 gallons of gasoline were transferred from one plane to the other.

The aviators surely knew they’d accomplished something important. But they just as surely could not imagine what would follow: A technology that would grow and improve, today performing a critical function in our elite, modern Air Force and Navy.

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