When Boeing’s replacement for the KC-97, the KC-135A Stratotanker, entered service in 1957, Strategic Air Command turned their backs on their KC-97s. But Tactical Air Command (TAC) was plenty happy to have them. When refueling tactical aircraft like the North American F-100 equipped with a refueling probe the boom was equipped with the required drogue. Happy to have KC-97s too were Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard (ANG) units. KC-97s served across the country and around the world with more than 100 SAC, TAC, Reserve, and ANG Air Refueling Squadrons (ARS) as well as Israel and Spain. In 1978, after 26 years of service, the last ARS KC-97Ls were retired by the Texas Air National Guard and the Utah Air National Guard.
We’re fortunate to have more than twenty KC-97s on display in museums and at Air Force Bases today. There are actually two KC-97s still flying- though you might not recognize either of them right off. The first began life as KC-97 52-0828, and that airframe donated its wings, tail, empennage, cockpit, and landing gear to NASA 941- the sole remaining Super Guppy. The other now-airworthy KC-97G (52-2718) was converted back to the non-tanker C-97G configuration when restored to flight in 2017 by Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF) after spending quite a few years in the desert at the Boneyard.
On 9 May 1957 KC-97F USAF SN 51-0258 suffered a double engine failure while en route from Sidi Slimane Air Base in Morocco to Lajes in the Azores. The Stratofreighter successfully ditched in the Atlantic roughly 340 miles southeast of the Azores. The crew of seven all survived the ditching, and 258 did too- floating for ten days after the crew was rescued. The Iowa-class battleship USS Wisconsin (BB-64) was on her way home from the Med when she was called upon to sink 258, which she did with naval gunfire. When landed in one piece in the open ocean, Boeing’s 377 Stratoliner could also float for quite a while.
On 14 December 1959 KC-97G USAF SN 53-0231 of the 384th Air Refueling Squadron based at Westover AFB in Massachusetts, collided with a Strategic Air Command B-52 during a refueling mission. The collision left 231 without her left horizontal stabilizer and elevator, the upper quarter of her vertical stabilizer, and rudder- but with the refueling boom skewered through the aft fuselage! The KC-97G crew made a no-flap, electrical power off night recovery at Dow AFB in Bangor, Maine. The B-52 recovered safely at Westover- minus two of her crew, who had ejected after the collision and were subsequently rescued safely on the ground. Miraculously there were no injuries.
On 30 March 1960 KC-97F USAF SN 51-0363 was forced to ditch in heavy seas after losing an engine while en route from Harmon AFB in Newfoundland to MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida. 363 ditched in the Atlantic Ocean roughly 43 miles from the east coast Florida off Cape Canaveral with the loss of two of the 14 souls on board the aircraft. Slightly more than 55 years later the wreck of 363 was discovered on the bottom by divers 365 feet down in 2015.
KC-97s starred (in supporting roles) in a pair of SAC shipping-out films during the 1950s. The first was the 1955 Paramount feature ‘Strategic Air Command’ starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson- and a few KC-97Gs hauling support equipment and refueling B-47s. The second film was the 1957 Warner Brothers movie ‘Bombers B-52’ starring Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.- and KC-97Ls refueling B-52s.
The last KC-97G built by Boeing rolled out of the factory doors and was pushed aside to make room for the first production example of its replacement- Boeing’s own KC-135A Stratotanker.