Arnold E. Ebneter
Excerpted from “Cold War Airpower Laboratory” written by Arnold Ebneter’s daughter, Eileen Bjorkman, with her permission.
The USAF’s modern expeditionary roots date to 1955 when the service as a whole was entrenched in Cold War doctrine that put atomic weapons on the highest rung of American strategy. Most of the leadership prized intercontinental missiles and massive bombers armed with powerful nuclear warheads over scrappy fighters capable of carrying smaller atomic weapons and conventional bombs.
But there were some, including General Otto P. Weyland, commander of the Tactical Air Command, who were concerned that atomic weapons would do nothing to deter or help extinguish “brush fires,” limited conflicts that might pop up around the globe. Weyland wanted a mobile force that could deploy worldwide with a few hours’ notice.
In response, in July 1955, the USAF created the Nineteenth Air Force at Foster Air Force Base, near Victoria, Texas. Commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Viccellio, the tiny headquarters staff included 85 military and six civilian planners whose job was to develop procedures for deploying and using mobile forces in limited wars.
Despite the fact that the Nineteenth owned no air units, planners experimented by combining parts of fighter, bomber, reconnaissance and communications squadrons into packages and sending them all over the world using aircraft from transport and refueling squadrons. Each package, called a Composite Air Strike Force (CASF), had the goal of delivering combat capability to a theater within a few days. And each CASF had to be able to operate unassisted for 30 days until reinforcements could arrive.
Early on, one of the biggest problems facing planners was the immaturity of fighter aircraft refueling, in particular for the Nineteenth’s frontline fighter, the North American F-100. The Super Sabre had a probe that fit into a basket-shaped receptacle called a drogue, which was attached to the tanker via a long hose. But Air Force tankers didn’t receive the drogues until the summer of 1956. Once the tankers were finally equipped for training the Sabre pilots, it was the blind leading the blind as the pilots tried to figure out the refueling process.
F-100 pilots at Foster AFB, including …Lt. Cols. Arnold Ebneter… and Ted Workman, both recalled that positioning their jets to plug the probe into the basket proved much harder than had been anticipated. As Workman said: “The refueling probe had design problems—the probe was on the right wing, and it was too short, so we couldn’t see it as we tried to stab it into the basket. They fixed it later [by making the probe longer], but early pilots had to figure out visual cues for where to place the basket so they could hit it.”
Many pilots struggled to master the process. Instead of sliding the probe smoothly into the basket, they often slammed into it, resulting in cracked canopies, gouged airframes and unhappy maintenance crews. When they did manage to hook up with the tankers, some Sabre pilots inadvertently ripped baskets and hoses off tankers and flew home with them still attached. Refueling turned out to be so difficult that it terrified some fliers. Workman remembered one pilot was so nervous about an upcoming refueling mission that while taxiing to the runway he rode his brakes hard, blowing two tires. Even getting the F-100s properly lined up behind the tankers could be a challenge.
On one six-hour flight in August 1956, Ebneter recalled that the five tankers they rendezvoused with over the East Coast were flying in a trailing formation resembling a drawn-out conga line. “Somehow, an Eastern Airlines Constellation got into the string,” he said, “and there was a bit of confusion until the flight lead decided the Connie wouldn’t give him any gas.”
After that, planners told the tankers to fly in a line-abreast formation that would be easier to maintain. By September 1956, TAC thought the Nineteenth was ready for a practice deployment to Europe. Dubbed Mobile Baker, the operation would involve moving fighters, reconnaissance aircraft and associated equipment and personnel across the Atlantic, deploying from bases on the East Coast and in the South. The planners thought small on this exercise: The fighters hopscotched their way to Europe.
Ebneter’s logbook shows that on September 16 they flew from Foster to Dover AFB, Del., and then on to Ernest Harmon Air Base, Newfoundland. Three days later they flew nonstop to Sidi Slimane, in French Morocco, a trip that took about five hours, including refueling over the Azores. From Sidi Slimane, units scattered to locations in France, Germany and Italy.
Participating in Mobile Baker were F-100Cs from the 450th Fighter Day Wing at Foster; Republic F-84Fs from the 366th Fighter Bomber Wing at England AFB, La.; RF-84Fs from the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB, S.C.; and Douglas B-66s from the 17th Bomb Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Support aircraft included tankers from the 429th and 622nd Air Refueling squadrons at Langley AFB, Va., and England AFB, along with Douglas C-124 transports from the 63rd Troop Carrier Wing at Donaldson AFB, S.C.
The last leg of the Atlantic crossing was grueling for the fighter pilots, who had to spend long hours in cramped cockpits wearing suffocating “poopy suits” in case they landed in freezing water after ejecting. Once they reached Europe, however, there was plenty of time for sightseeing and souvenir collecting, including the always-popular bottles of liquor.
During the return trip, the fliers stashed their booty in one of several roomy gun and ammunition bays in their aircraft. Ebneter remembered that most of the Mobile Baker pilots purchased the legal one-gallon limit of duty-free liquor to bring back home. But one man bought three gallons of scotch, placing his “legal” scotch in his heated ammunition bay, then secreted the other bottles in the unheated gun bays. It apparently hadn’t occurred to him that alcohol might freeze after 2½ hours at 40,000 feet. The frozen scotch expanded and broke the bottles.
Then, during his descent for landing, the liquor melted. When the Dover customs inspector reached his aircraft after landing, the would-be smuggler stared in dismay at the scotch streaming out of his gun bays. The inspector looked at the intact bottles in the ammunition bay, scowled and asked him pointedly, “Anything else to declare?” The dejected flier looked away from his contraband pooling on the tarmac and responded, “Not anymore.”
See the full article at Https://www.historynet.com/cold-war-airpower-laboratory.htm and see other articles by pilot and author Eileen Bjorkman at: Https://www.eileenbjorkman.com/writing-samples.html
- 1953 Pilot training
- 1954-1958 452nd Fighter Day Squadron
- 1960-1965 401st Tactical Fighter Wing
- 1968 308 Tactical Fighter Squadron, Tuy Hoa, AB, Vietnam (F-100 – 427 combat hours)
Awards & Decorations
Louis Blériot Medal
10/26/2013, inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame (WAHF)
Military & Civilian Education
- Aviation Cadet
- University of Minnesota
- Aeronautical Engineering, Texas A&M