Sir Alan Cobham knew enough of the dangers of flying to be aware
that any flight that required less en-route landings and take-offs
would be safer and allow greater range and payload. The advantages
of refuelling in flight had now become obvious.
In October 1934 he founded Flight Refuelling Ltd (FRL) to
develop aerial refuelling equipment for commercial and military
use. Sir Alan also envisaged his new company providing aerial
tanker services at key points along the world's expanding air
By 1939, the company had devised a method that enabled Imperial
Airways flying-boats to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.
During World War II Cobham was quick to point out the advantage
air-to-air refuelling would give aircraft patrolling the Atlantic,
but it was only late in the war that the RAF's 'Tiger Force', about
to be deployed to the Far East, was planned to be so equipped. It
was overtaken when rapid advances in the Pacific by American forces
removed the need for British involvement.
The equipment was later used by the USAF in March 1949, when
four Boeing KB-29M tankers enabled a Boeing B-50A, 'Lucky Lady II',
bomber to fly non-stop around the world.
Probe and Drogue is born
Cobham was taken by surprise when a request was made for a more
flexible automatic system, capable of refuelling single-seat
fighters. The answer, Flight Refuelling's new probe and drogue
system, was demonstrated to a USAF delegation just six months
later. On August 7 1949, installed in a company Lancaster tanker
and Meteor receiver, it enabled a world jet endurance record of 12
hours and 3 minutes.
The subsequent arrival of four B-29s and two Republic F-84
fighters for conversion to tankers and receivers brought both
technical and timescale problems, only later resolved by the
transfer of the probe and drogue design and manufacturing rights to
the US government. As if to underline the value of the system, in
1950 the USAF flew the first modified F-84s back home - the first
air refuelled non-stop jet crossing of the Atlantic.
The Korean conflict saw the first use of probe and drogue
refuelling in a war theatre. Not only did carrier launched
twin-engined North American Savage tankers fitted with FR Inc Hose
Drum Units undertake the more demanding refuelling tasks, but the
US Navy and Marines perfected the 'Buddy-Buddy' system, allowing a
fighter or strike aircraft equipped with a simple refuelling unit
to supply others low on fuel when returning from a mission.
Although initially less convinced of the need for air
refuelling, the Royal Navy's fixed wing squadrons and the Royal Air
Force's 'V' bomber force became fully equipped by the start of the
Perhaps Cobham's greatest source of pride in the post-war period
was Flight Refuelling's contribution to the Berlin Airlift. It was
the first company to respond to the government's call for civilian
involvement. After a year of unstinting effort in which 12 of its
aircraft carried over 27,000 tons of domestic heating oil and fuel,
it was the last to leave.
A Handley Page W.10 refuels Cobham's Airspeed
Courier during the pioneering if unsuccessful attempt to fly
non-stop from Portsmouth, England, to Karachi, Pakistan, in 1934.
Remarkably, the refuelling hose was caught with a walking
A USAF KB-29M tanker, using FRL equipment,
refuels B-50A 'Lucky Lady II' during a training mission for the
record round-the-world non-stop flight of 94 hours in March
Flight Refuelling Ltd was the first civilian
company to be engaged in the Berlin Airlift, and the last to
withdraw after its 12 aircraft had ferried in almost seven million
gallons of domestic heating oil and diesel fuel.