Operation Sun Run RF-101C Voodoos
By Norm Filer
1957 was a good year for the U.S. Air Force. The new Century Series aircraft were finally reaching maturity and squadron service, and Strategic Air Command was just starting to receive the KC-135 tanker that would put real world-wide capability in its bomber force.
In May of that year, the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, started receiving the first of their RF-101As. Somebody at USAF headquarters realized that the new Voodoos, coupled with the new KC-135, were capable of setting new records. The Voodoo was the first Air Force Fighter equipped with the flying boom capability. This allowed much higher fuel transfer rates than the more commonly used hose and drogue system. While the older KC-97s and KB-50s struggled to climb much above twenty thousand feet, the KC-135s would zip right along at 35,000. First up was an attempt to establish a new coast-to-coast speed record, both West to East, East to West, and round trip. Like all military efforts, this one needed a catchy title, and this one became Operation Sun Run.
The plan was to use six aircraft; two would fly one way, two would do the round trip, and two would serve as spares in case of problems with one of the primary aircraft. Six RF-101As deployed from Shaw to George AFB, California on 14 October 1957. As mentioned above, the boom refueling system was new to TAC, and critical to the establishment of any new record, so considerable time was spent practicing with the new tankers. McDonnell had established a basic flight profile that would be used for the record attempt. The profile planned for an afterburner takeoff from Ontario International Airport, leaving it in afterburner until leveling off at 45,000 ft, staying in AB until starting a decent to 35,000 ft for refueling at around Mach 0.8, then hitting the burner again and repeating the process. The plan was for four of these refueling cycles eastbound, each over a track of about 100 miles. The westbound track also included four tanker cycles, but these were only to cover about 80 miles each. Time between tanker cycles was estimated to be a very short 26 minutes.
During the work up at George, the original RF-101As were replaced by brand new RF-101Cs. An indication of the significance of this Air Force record attempt is that these birds came directly from the factory and were the second thru seventh RF-101Cs built.
The actual record attempt was scheduled for November 27, 1957. The plan was for two waves. The first aircraft, the round trip attempt, would leave Ontario IAP five minutes ahead of the one way aircraft. The spare would depart 10 minutes after the one way attempt and would follow until after the first refueling. If either one or two had no problems the spare would turnaround and land at March AFB, just east of L.A. The second wave would depart one hour later and follow the same plan.
Sun Run #1
Capt. Ray Schrecengost left at 06:59.57 and flew to Floyd Bennett, New York in 3:15.41, turned around and returned to Ontario in 4:01.26. Total time was 7:17.07. He had some controller confusion and fuel problems that slowed him a bit.
Sun Run #2
Capt. Robert Kilpatrick lost the use of his wing fuel, and had in-flight refueling problems and had to descend to 14,000ft on one refueling, and had to manually find the tanker on another refueling when controllers lost both him and the tanker. Despite all this, he reached New York in 3:11.39, about four minutes faster than #1.
Sun Run #3
Capt. Don Hawkins, the first wave spare, actually recorded the best time to the first tanker, but since neither #1 nor #2 aborted, he was out of the race, refueled and landed at March AFB.
Sun Run #4
Capt. Robert Sweet, left at 07:50:38. A flawless aircraft, no controller problems and maybe some luck allowed Sweet to establish a new East to West and round trip record of 3:36.22 and 6:46.36.
Sun Run #5
Lt. Gustav R. Klatt, posted the record to New York. His time was 3:07.43. Again he had controller problems and atone point had less than 500 lbs of fuel when the controllers did not position him properly.
Sun Run #6
Capt. Robert Burkhart, the second wave spare, hit the first tanker and since #4 and #5 were on their way with no problems he took on only enough fuel to return to March AFB.
Modeling notes: some artwork and photos of Sun Run #1 show the name "Cin-Min" under the cockpit, a large TAC emblem on the spine of the aircraft and a 18th TRS emblem on the nose. The name was the first three letters of Capt. Schrecongost's two daughters. It is my belief that all these were added after the record setting effort. The name and the title "Sun Run" stayed on the a/c long after it was repainted in 363rd TRW markings.