Aircraft History

MAY 17 2011
Aircraft History: Boeing C-97

I guess it is fair to say that we each have our own favourite things, whether it take the form of an object or a colour or a type of food. It is also probably fair to remark that those of us who pursue an interest in aviation-related matters will have at least one (and quite possibly rather more than one) favourite aircraft. As for the reasoning behind why they are favourites, some will no doubt arise simply from aesthetic considerations (think Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hunter and Convair F-106 Delta Dart), while others will be based on physical attributes and characteristics such as sheer power (think English Electric Lightning, McDonnell F-4 Phantom II and Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’). And then, almost inevitably, there will be some that illogically find their way into favourite lists for no other reason than that we like them (think anything you like…).

I certainly have my fair share of flying machines that merit inclusion in the latter category. The hideously ugly consequence of adding radar to the Lockheed Super Constellation that resulted in the EC-121 Warning Star is one such type that occupies a very high place on my list of favourites, which only goes to show that there is no accounting for taste. I also find myself strangely drawn to the subject of this selection of images, specifically the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, although I am at a loss to fully explain just why it ranks as a favourite. It certainly cannot claim to be blessed with elegant lines, being a rather portly machine, with the forward fuselage contours marred for many by the addition of a chin radome containing weather radar. Oddly enough, I actually liked this feature and believe it added a very neat finishing touch.

Being a bit long in the tooth now, I saw more than my fair share of “Strats”, as they were invariably called. Not of the Boeing 377 airliner brand, I hasten to add. My interest in aviation didn’t start until after the Stratocruiser had pretty much been retired from commercial service, so they seldom came into my field of view. However, there were still plenty of military C-97 versions trundling about. Although largely replaced by the KC-135 with Strategic Air Command (SAC), examples of the KC-97G tanker remained in use until about the mid-1960s and I saw a handful of these at the clutch of UK SAC bases located in the vicinity of Oxford before they were finally closed in 1964-65.

Rather more numerous at that time were aircraft from the Air National Guard (ANG). This organisation had some KC-97 tankers, but operated many more in the pure transport role, these being known as C-97Gs following removal of the specialised in-flight refuelling equipment. A total of 18 ANG squadrons from a dozen different states (including Arizona, California, Georgia, Minnesota, New York and Utah) flew C-97Gs between 1960 and 1972 and these were a familiar sight in Europe, augmenting Military Air Transport Service/Military Airlift Command (MATS/MAC}) aircraft that were pre-occupied with hauling cargo and personnel to and from South-East Asia for much of this period.

Combat operations in South-East Asia were also directly responsible for prolonging the life of tanker-configured ”Strats” with the ANG. Often dismissed as “weekend warriors” at this time, that charge could most assuredly not be levelled at the ANG tanker outfits. Commencing with the Illinois ANG’s 108th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) in 1961, a group of five squadrons was initially equipped with the KC-97F and/or KC-97G by 1965, when the addition of General Electric J47 turbojet engines beneath the outer wing sections provided a welcome boost in performance and resulted in redesignation as the KC-97L. Subsequently, between 1969 and 1972, a second group of five squadrons was given the tanker mission, for which purpose at least 20 former SAC KC-97G airframes were pulled from the storage lines at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona for conversion to KC-97L standard.

Between them, these 10 squadrons were responsible for a long-running operation known as “Creek Party”, which furnished tanker support to elements of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) command. In the normal course of events, this would have been provided by SAC KC-135s, but they were heavily committed to combat operations in South-East Asia. With the KC-135 simply not available, the ANG stepped in to fill the breach. Using Rhein-Main (Frankfurt) as an operating base, ANG units took turn and turn about in providing five KC-97Ls on a continuously rotating basis commencing 1 May 1967. Normal tours of deployed duty lasted two weeks, with the change-over invariably occurring during a weekend, so that the newly arrived unit would be available for business on the following Monday. “Creek Party” was initially perceived as being only a temporary measure to alleviate a shortage of resources, but in the event it ran for almost a decade before finally terminating on 28 April 1977, almost exactly 10 years to the day after it was launched.

At the time “Creek Party” was running, I was working for British European Airways and took full advantage of reduced rate staff travel privileges whenever I could. This included weekend trips to Frankfurt, these usually being carefully timed so as to catch the changeover, while my first visit to the US in November 1969 was specifically for the purpose of visiting the storage facility at Davis-Monthan. A considerable number of C-97s of various sub-types languished there. There could have been as many as 300 in all, including the former SAC KC-97G aircraft alluded to earlier - some of which I photographed in storage and again following their being returned to service after modification to the KC-97L configuration.

The accompanying images show a variety of military “Strats” and give some indication of how versatile it was. They include Air National Guard C-97G transports, KC-97G and KC-97L tankers and single examples of the C-97K staff transport, HC-97G rescue version and last but by no means least a special mission C-97G that was used to gather intelligence in Europe and was sometimes erroneously referred to as an “EC-97G”. In addition to aircraft in US service, there is one interloper in the guise of a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser from Israel. Most of the USAF examples were in the standard natural metal finish, usually relieved only by national insignia, Air Force titles and serial number, although it was not unknown for some aircraft to display additional markings. SAC’s “milky way” is a good example, while nose art did occasionally appear and there are a couple of examples of that amongst this selection.

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