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The KC-97s at International Air Tattoo (IAT)


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Imagine the scene. It is July 1973, and 11 year old budding aviation enthusiast Canberraman, together with his father, are eagerly looking forward to attending the first International Air Tattoo (IAT) to be held at RAF Greenham Common, just 10 miles from the family home.  And what a great show it was being the first truly international air show attended at that point. As well as significant numbers of military aircraft from the UK armed forces, there was exotica from the German Army and Air Force, French Navy, Royal Netherlands Air Force and Navy, Canadian Air Force, and of course the USAF, US Army and US Navy. Back then Greenham Common was a USAF standby base and so it was not surprising that American support flourished. And one USAF aircraft that made a lasting impression then and remains a personal favorite to this day, was the mighty KC-97L Stratofreighter. 


I don’t recall being even aware of the type before heading to that first IAT. On initial inspection it looked like a B-29 - with a double-bubble fuselage (from which it was in fact derived). Watching the KC-97 taxi was a spectacle in itself, as the radial engines belched out huge clouds of blue/grey exhaust smoke while it trundled along. There were also the squeaky brakes that I can still recall after all these years. 


But it was in the air that it truly thrilled me.  Before reaching crowd centre, you could hear the throb of the 4 mighty P&W Wasp radial engines; but it was after it passed that this rumble was obliterated by the racket from the pair of J-57 turbojets. An extraordinary prop/jet combination, the only other similar configuration back then being the P2V-7 Neptune (which also flew at that first Greenham show in the capable hands of the Aeronavale). 
Greenham was of course no stranger to the KC-97, being that entire squadrons had earlier deployed en-masse to SAC bases in the UK such as Greenham Common for 90 day TDYs between 1955 and 1964 under Reflex Alert (together with with complete SAC Wings of B-47 bombers).  


The KC-97 at IAT 73 was 52-0905, a KC-97L model from the 126 ARS Wisconsin Air National Guard. This example had evidently attended the Air Tattoo while detached to Rhein-Main AB in Germany where it was on Creek Party detachment. Nowadays 52-0905 is preserved at Volk Field Wisconsin.

 

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An immaculate Wisconsin ANG KC-97L 52-0905 rests in the sun before its flying display at IAT 1973.

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Same machine photographed 45 years later at Volk Field Museum Wisconsin in 2018. Photo credit Stewart Dempster.

 

Operation Creek Party – a historical note. 


For 11 years, from 1967-1977, the air corridors above central Germany were frequented by KC-97L Stratofreighters refuelling a wide range of USAFE and NATO fighter jets. They were required in Europe because the KC-135 tankers which had replaced them, were needed in large numbers to support the American war effort in South-East Asia. Operation Creek Party as the mission was known, began at Rhein-Main AB on May 1st 1967. Initially expected to last just a year, the situation continued with year-on-year extensions as the Vietnam conflict dragged on, still requiring the KC-135. Eventually all 10 KC-97L equipped squadron of the US Air National Guard became involved and each unit would deploy for 15 days usually bring 5 to 6 aircraft on each deployment. Creek Party was the earliest known sustained overseas volunteer rotation by a Reserve component of the U.S. armed forces to support a real-world military mission in a situation short of war. Following the cessation of combat ops in 1973, the US began returning its air assets from SE Asia . Vast numbers of KC-135s began transferring to the Air National Guard and their arrival signalled the end of the KC-97L. Operation Creek Party finally ended in Spring 1977.


The 10 ANG units that operated the KC-97L and which rotated on Op Creek Party detachments were as follows:


106 ARG/102 ARS     New York ANG
126 ARG/108 ARS    Illinois ANG
128 ARG/126 ARS    Wisconsin ANG
134 ARG/151 ARS     Tennessee ANG
136 ARG/181 ARS    Texas ANG
139 ARG/180 ARS    Missouri ANG
151 ARG/191 ARS     Utah ANG
160 ARG/145 ARS    Ohio ANG
161 ARG/197 ARS    Arizona ANG
171 ARG/147 ARS    Pennsylvania ANG
 
In 1974, the US Air National Guard provided another KC-97L for the IAT flying display at Greenham Common. This year it was the turn of the 160 ARG/145 ARS, Ohio ANG which sent aircraft serial 52-2630 ‘Zeppelinheim’.  A year earlier, the mayor of Zeppelinheim, a town near Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany (today part of Frankfurt International Airport), christened this aircraft in his town's honor. Aircraft 52-2630 was the mount of the 145 ARS Oh ANG Commander – Colonel Frank Cattran and was inscribed ‘Zeppelinheim’ near the crew access door. This dedication took place on June 7th 1973 as a symbol of German-American cooperation and friendship. 

 

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Ohio ANG KC-97L 52-2630 just prior to its flying display at IAT 74.

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And then trundling noisily and with billowing exhaust smoke to the Greenham runway threshold.

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A close up of the Zeppelinheim inscription above 62-2630's crew access door. 

 

In the book Air Tattoo, Bill Newby-Grant – an IAT volunteer helper, described how he and several colleagues got a unique opportunity, to fly as passengers during the KC-97’s flying display at IAT 74. He described how he initially lay prone in the tinted glass cabin normally occupied by the boom operator at the tail of the aircraft. Once the ‘boomer’ had reoccupied this position, a low and slow demonstration pass was made while the boom was lowered. It was inadvertently let down too far though and touched the runway sending up clouds of sparks!  The pilot that day, one Capt Floyd Nelson, reminisced in 2011 of how his unit commander had a gentle word when he got back to base, saying “Somehow I did not get the message I wasn’t supposed to do a flying display”.


In today’s safety prioritized airshow environment, it is impossible to imagine an uncleared flying display let alone the carriage of unauthorized civilian personnel! Different times…


The KC-97L displayed at IAT 74 has also been preserved for posterity. After retirement from the Ohio ANG, ‘Zeppelinheim’ was flown to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Dayton Ohio in August 1976, where it dominates one of the indoor hangars to this day.

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Photo credit USAF public archive.

 

1976 was the third and final appearance of a KC-97L at IAT, but that year was static display only.  The participating aircraft - 53-0327, from the 181 ARS Texas ANG, did however go the extra mile to get to the event being that it landed at Greenham Common at 0730 hours on Friday July 30th before the aerodrome had officially opened!


 In the Air Tattoo 50 book, Malcolm Gault – an IAT volunteer Operations Officer, recalls the KC-97 arriving early due to a strong tailwind crossing the Atlantic.  He added that Tim Prince shot off to the tower to give it landing clearance, and Andy Walton followed saying he would marshal it in. The aircraft was duly parked and about 15 minutes after landing, the crew joined the IAT team in the queue at the dining hall for breakfast! It would also appear that this aircraft had gone unserviceable at Gander, its Atlantic point of departure, and had been delayed for 24 hours with an electrical fault. Desperate to get to the show, the crew apparently made an unnotified departure in the company of a sister aircraft from the Tx ANG that was also due to travel to Rhein Main to commence Creek Party duties.  


This machine – amazingly - also survived the breaker’s axe and is preserved at Whiteman AFB Missouri. 

 

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KC-97L 53-0327 of 181 ARS Tx ANG on static display at IAT 1976.

 

Being such a big fan of the KC-97, I was delighted when back in the 1990s, South Korean company Academy produced a range of injection moulded Stratofreighters in 1/72.  Shortly after the kits’ release. I began work on the KC-97L. And with ‘Zeppelinheim’ as one of the decal choices, well there was never any doubt would be the one I built! Here's a couple of shots I took of her from my iphone today. 

 

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I hope this nostalgic look back at the KC-97L at IAT has been interesting.  The photos are from the author’s collection except where otherwise stated.  It has been a labour of love though to digitalise and clean up slides and negatives that are nearly 50 years old, but hope you think it has been worth it. 


C&C always welcome. Thanks for looking.  

 

Mark

 

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Very nice pics and background story. I well recall the 1974 show and the other one. The last ones I saw were three that turned up at Lakenheath in mid 1970s. Somewhere I have some slide scans of them.

Great model by the way. I had one of those kitsfor a while butnever built it having sold it for a good return.

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I remember them well, thank you for sharing. The last C97's I saw in the flesh so to speak were sitting in the desert at Greybull Wyoming in 2001, great!

 

Keith

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It looks like a B-29 had a mid-air incident with another, slightly-lower flying B-29. 

 

For me, she has her own special kind of "beauty".

 

Thanks for sharing with us.

 

Chris.  

 

 

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Gents,

 

Many thanks for the kind comments and likes. Its heartening to see that I'm not the only one with a love for the ugly/beautiful* (*delete as applicable) C-97 :)

 

Mark

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Oh, happy happy memories. I remember one Greenham (1974?) when the KC97 displayed with 2 USAFE F4’s - fantastic. And before I could drive (so pre 1975), sitting on the wall at Red Lodge one Sunday morning where the National Express coach stopped on the way to the ‘Hall, when 5 came over. Got to Mildenhall, not there….taxi to Lakenheath and voila! Thank you so much for posting, I loved the KC97’s (and C121’s, C131’s…..)

 

SD

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Great photos and model! I also quite like the KC-97, although I have never seen one. Got 3 diecast ones myself, one being an Ohio ANG Creek Party example, and one being a Greenham Common based aircraft. Amazing that all three you saw still survive.

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3 hours ago, Swamp Donkey said:

Oh, happy happy memories. I remember one Greenham (1974?) when the KC97 displayed with 2 USAFE F4’s - fantastic. And before I could drive (so pre 1975), sitting on the wall at Red Lodge one Sunday morning where the National Express coach stopped on the way to the ‘Hall, when 5 came over. Got to Mildenhall, not there….taxi to Lakenheath and voila! Thank you so much for posting, I loved the KC97’s (and C121’s, C131’s…..)

 

SD

Thanks SD!  What great memories eh?  Would love to seen the 5 Strats arrive.  No doubt they were deploying en masse to Rhein Main for Creek Party duties as described, as headwinds could restrict the range to fly direct.  Oh to have a time machine!

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1 minute ago, canberraman said:

Thanks SD!  What great memories eh?  Would love to seen the 5 Strats arrive.  No doubt they were deploying en masse to Rhein Main for Creek Party duties as described, as headwinds could restrict the range to fly direct.  Oh to have a time machine!

And the camera gear we have now!

 

SD

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44 minutes ago, danbuoy said:

Great photos and model! I also quite like the KC-97, although I have never seen one. Got 3 diecast ones myself, one being an Ohio ANG Creek Party example, and one being a Greenham Common based aircraft. Amazing that all three you saw still survive.

Thanks Danbuoy. I too have the Corgi diecasts somewhere in my man cave, plus 3 other Academy diecasts waiting to be built!  I reckon another trip to the States is called for to get a fix of the beautiful  preserved examples. I seem to recall the Berlin Historical Foundation also have a flyer which I would love to see. 

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48 minutes ago, canberraman said:

Thanks Danbuoy. I too have the Corgi diecasts somewhere in my man cave, plus 3 other Academy diecasts waiting to be built!  I reckon another trip to the States is called for to get a fix of the beautiful  preserved examples. I seem to recall the Berlin Historical Foundation also have a flyer which I would love to see. 

Yes, they do, painted up as the "Angel of Deliverance" (also made by Corgi coincidentally!), the single YC-97 that flew in the Berlin Airlift.

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Super photos Mark & a superb looking build you've got there. 👍 1/72 is a bit big for one of these for me but I've got a 1/144 kit that I'm keen to model as one of the ex USAF ones that flew relief flights for Joint Church Aid (Jesus Christ Airlines) during the Biafran conflict of the late 1960s.

Steve.

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Thanks for the detailed background,  Mark. Quite incredible that the specific airframes in your quite wonderful photos are extant! I love the model as well.

 

You brought back some good memories of attending IAT at Greenham Common with my Dad in the late 70s.

 

 

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10 hours ago, Alpha Delta 210 said:

Thanks for the detailed background,  Mark. Quite incredible that the specific airframes in your quite wonderful photos are extant! I love the model as well.

 

You brought back some good memories of attending IAT at Greenham Common with my Dad in the late 70s.

 

 

Leigh, Colin, Steve and Michael.. Many thanks for the supportive comments and glad you like my 1/72 Strat.  The IATs at Greenham do indeed seem a lifetime ago but in my opinion have never been bettered (and I've been to every one since 1973!).  Those old radial engined types like the Strat, the Connie and the Cargomaster all had a unique and esoteric charm.  I'm pleased to have brought back some happy memories.  Mark

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