Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) is still a pretty amazing concept, more than 90 years since pilots got the idea of connecting two aircraft by a fuel hose. Since then, most aircraft have done their level best to avoid one another in the sky, but air-to-air refuelling specifically relies on them making a connection. What’s more, whilst they are connected, they start transferring fuel to one another.
It requires precision flying and planning, all at hundreds of kilometres per hour. The next time you’re out driving, imagine trying to plug a fuel hose into another car whilst speeding down a motorway.
What makes AAR useful is that you can extend your range of your aircraft; or fly heavier payloads without running out of fuel. It’s what’s called a ‘force multiplier’, because suddenly your jet can perform to a greater degree than its original specifications was.
It’s rare however that you’ll see AAR featured in the movies. A lot can hang on a military aircraft potentially running out of fuel in the middle of the sky, especially if the fate of the free world is hanging in the balance. And yet, we’re often spared a tense 30-second interlude where our hero has to set aside all distractions, to refuel with another plane.
With that in mind, I thought I’d pay some credit and criticism to examples of Hollywood having showcased AAR on the silverscreen (or in some cases, the straight-to-video market). They’re ranked in no particular order – in fact, I deliberately contrast
the good with the bad. Click on the title for the YouTube clip of the scene in question.
Strategic Air Command (1955)
This isn’t so much a movie as it is 112 minutes of United States Air Force stock-footage cut together with the odd scene between Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. I think it’s kind of hilarious that Jimmy Stewart plays a pilot whose job it is to nuke Moscow, in spite of the fact that he flew actual bombing missions against Germany during the War. Just think – the guy from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ hauling around the sky with a thermonuclear weapon in the bomb bay.
On the whole, the AAR scene in Strategic Air Command is reasonably accurate, because they did it for real. It features an early model B-47 Stratojet refuelling from a KC-97, against the backdrop of Mt McKinley (I guess. I don’t know). To complete this aesthetic awesome-ness, you also get a swelling orchestral score. I like to think that when the average cinema-going audience in 1955 saw this, their minds exploded.
Incidentally, I should reiterate how June Allyson plays the Air Force wife in this. I’m pretty sure it was a rule that if you were making a movie about the United States Air Force in the 1950s, June Allyson had to play the wife.
50 years after movie audiences were exposed to Strategic Air Command, they got landed with Stealth. In this film, three hotshot Navy pilots must hunt down an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) that got struck by a lightning, becomes sentient, and downloads every shitty song from the late 90s/early 2000s (listening to them all un-ironically).
Now granted, there’s a lot of things this movie guessed right about the future of aviation.
As cool as AAR is, it’s kind of a chore – just imagine if your car refuelled itself when you pulled into a gas station. Stealth takes this idea on by making the tanker itself being a drone. In this case, it’s a large dirigible (like a rigid-hull blimp) floating in the sky as an un-crewed refuelling station. That’s a fundamentally good idea – it can stay in the sky for days/weeks, potentially using a combination of gases and solar-powered powerplants to enhance its range.
The trouble is:
1. Blimps are slow. The only way this tanker could have any speed is by travelling in the jetstream, which would still only give it a paltry airspeed of 100mph.
2. When the blimp refuses refuel to the UCAV, the UCAV shoots the end off the fuel hose, and plugs in to the spewing fuel. That’s every bit as dumb as it sounds.
Did I mention the god awful music plays in the background whilst this all happens?
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford’s version of ‘Die Hard on a plane’ is probably a stronger film than other aerial hijacking movies (Passenger 57, Executive Decision) or other Presidential action movies (Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down). It’s ridiculously over-the-top – but in just the right amount.
One of the things I enjoyed was that AAR is used as a plot device. The good guys need to parachute hostages from Air Force One from less than 20,000ft. To do this, they drain fuel from Air Force One, and get the terrorists to request a refuelling tanker (in this case, a KC-10A Extender). The requested refuelling altitude? 20,000ft.
Again, it’s a nice illustration of a real world capability that Air Force One actually has, and it plays into the movie nicely. It’s also a celebration of 1990s visual effects at their most mediocre.
There’s a couple of procedural errors (the KC-10A joins formation with Air Force One by approaching from above-and-behind, with very little separation – dick move, guys).
Plus the scene ends with the KC-10A getting obliterated. Hard luck, boomers.
The Perfect Storm (2000)
George Clooney and Marky Mark get lost at sea on a fishing boat. How would it have aviation, much less an an AAR scene?
This movie’s based on a true story, but that being said, I don’t know that true story – so it’s difficult to interogate what really happened and what was made up. During the movie, the rescue helicopter must take on fuel from a Hercules so that it can keep searching for our lost sailors.
For the average cinema-going audience, the idea of a helicopter refuelling from a fixed-wing aircraft does seem unbelievable.
The reality is, they do it for real.
The C-130 Hercules is one of the few fixed-wing aircraft that can fly slow enough to refuel other helicopters. Check his clip of them doing it in daylight. What’s more, they can refuel at night and in poor weather (I don’t know if they do it in conditions as bad as this movie, though). I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this movie (the Hercules’ crew must have flown the KC-10A in Air Force One – they join formation with the Rescue Hawk by flying from above and behind) (although in weather that bad, it might have been an accident).
The Final Countdown (1980)
If you like Top Gun, but wished it had less Tom Cruise and more Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen, then you need to watch The Final Countdown. Yes, that’s the name of the movie. No, it’s not in any way, shape or form related to the band Europe.
The truth is more awesome/bizarre. Cruising off the coast of Hawaii, the USS Nimitz gets sent back in time from 1980 to December 6th, 1941. The crew must decide whether to help America defeat the Japanese surprise attack, or let history take its course. And that’s it.
There are a lot of aerial scenes with F-14As from the VF-84 ‘Jolly Rogers’, some of which are arguably better than Top Gun. Key amongst these are one scene where a pair of Tomcats refuel from a KA-6D Intruder.
There’s really not too much more to it. The Tomcats give a textbook demonstration of AAR, then proceed to shootdown a pair of Japanese A6M Zeros.
This is another gem from the early 1980s that seems bizarrely lost to time. It’s rare I get to post the plot synopsis to this movie, so brace yourself:
Clint Eastwood, a fighter pilot who suffers PTSD from his service during the Vietnam War, must go on an undercover mission into the Soviet Union to steal a jet fighter.
Tell me you wouldn’t see that movie.
There’s not much else to add other than the fact that it has an actor playing Leonid Brezhnev trying to get his stolen jet fighter back (he’s not a disembodied voice on a telephone – it is literally a guy playing Leonid Brezhnev in several scenes as one of the chief antagonists).
The back half of the film has Eastwood flying the stolen MiG-31 Firefox, with the film taking on a kind of aviation-science fiction slant. It’s kind of like Stealth, only less shit, including the fact that there’s a fanciful AAR scene.
During the refuelling scenes, another MiG-31 uses the ‘boom’ refuelling method to take on fuel from a modified Tu-95 ‘Bear’, whilst its pilot talks to home base about his next course of action in chasing after Eastwood. The Soviets however never used boom refuelling, much used the Tu-95 for refuelling. They developed a weird hoop/hose method for their M-4 Bison bombers for a while, before opting to install the simpler hose-and-drogue on Il-76 Candid transports (creating the Il-78 Midas tanker).
This is like the Citizen Kane of bad aviation cinema – although this critique is a cheap shot, considering it’s a straight-to-video release.
In a nutshell: Jürgen Prochnow hijacks a USAF C-5 Galaxy transporter carrying a pair of super secret F-1117 Stealth Fighter variants, that he intends to steal.
I hesitated to include this movie on the list, as there’s technically no AAR taking place – the bad guys transfer themselves down the hollowed-out refuelling boom of a KC-10A (which is entirely too narrow, by the way), rather than giving any fuel.
Special mention to Iron Eagle, for which I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of the AAR. During the film, the protagonists fly a pair of F-16s and use AAR to cross the Atlantic Ocean. On the one hand, it’s accurate in the sense that AAR would be necessary to cross such a great distance. On the other hand, they only do it once in the film – crossing the Atlantic in an F-16 would likely require at least a dozen refuels. To say nothing of the fact that they kind of steal the fuel from the tankers. That being said, there’s a lot of bigger issues going on in this film…
So that’s my list of air-to-air refuelling in the movies. Hopefully we’ll get to see more examples of it in the future, because I think there’s a lot of unrealised potential for it to be on the screen (alternatively, it could all end in tears, much like some of the examples I’ve described here). Have I missed one? Let me know in comments, or reach out through Twitter on @eamonhamilton