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Selfridge ANGB: Home of the Drop Tank

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Welcome to the home of the drop tank.

There's hardly a military air field in the country - perhaps in the world - that does not have a collection of specially-designed jettisonable auxiliary fuel tanks, ready to be quickly attached to an aircraft to significantly extend the flying range of that aircraft. More commonly known as "drop tanks," these auxiliary fuel tanks, coupled with the use of in-flight refueling operations, help to allow today's fighter aircraft make long distance trips, such as a transit across the Atlantic Ocean. The world's first known operational use of such an auxiliary fuel tank took place on March 5, 1923, at what is today known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

The 1st Pursuit Group, then assigned to Selfridge Field, began to receive Boeing MB-3As in January 1922, replacing older World War I aircraft that the Group was still using. (The MB-3 had originally been designed by the Thomas-Morse company, but Boeing won the contract to supply the aircraft to the Army. That contract was a critical early victory in Boeing's rise as one of the world's premier aircraft manufacturers.)

With the MB-3As in place at Selfridge Field, Army Air Service engineers at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, began developing an external fuel tank that would expand the range of the new fighter. The tanks were delivered to Selfridge and on March 5, 1923, several MB-3As took off with the new 37-gallon tanks. The tank was suspended from the aircraft's bomb rack along the centerline of the bottom of the fuselage. A releasing device was available to the pilot in the cockpit. The original tanks were designed to be jettisoned once empty, rather than to be kept aboard the aircraft and only jettisoned in an emergency situation, as are today's tanks. With the added fuel from the tank, an MB-3A had a flying radius of about 400 miles, a marked improvement over previous pursuit-type aircraft.

As it turned out, new drop tanks weren't the only thing that made the news at Selfridge Field on March 5, 1923. On that same day, pilots decided to use the frozen Lake St. Clair as a landing field, using other MB-3As that had been equipped with skis, rather than wheels. Both the new drop tanks and the frozen lake landings were reported upon in the Air Service Newsletter, the official publication of the Army Air Service.

The development of the drop tank stalled after those early tests as Selfridge, as the primary focus of the young Air Service (later Army Air Corps and then Army Air Force) was on the development of bomber aircraft, which could carry sufficient on-board fuel for most envisioned missions.

During the Spanish Civil War of the middle 1930s, fighter aircraft began to be equipped with external drop tanks and then during World War II, the German Luftwaffe developed external tanks to extend the range of both dive bombers and air superiority fighters. Drop tanks were minimally used by U.S. fighters early in World War II, but in 1944, drop tanks began being used in significant numbers on P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft based in England, which allowed the P-47 to become a far-more effective escort for bombers heading to locations on the European mainland. The extended reach of England-based fighters was one of several key factors that helped turn the war in favor of the U.S. and its allies. The drop tanks proved equally valuable for U.S. pursuit/fighter aircraft covering the vast distances in the Pacific campaign and became critical in that theater of operations as well.

Today at Selfridge, the Air Force operates two types of aircraft, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a fighter that primarily serves as an air-to-ground attack aircraft, and the KC-135 Stratotanker. As an air-to-air refueling platform, the KC-135 can carry thousands of gallons of fuel and therefore is not equipped with drop tanks. The A-10 can carry an external tank for use on long-distance flights.

Comprised of approximately 1,700 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marks its 97th year of continuous military air operations in 2014.