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Flight Refuelling Ltd operated four Harrow tankers. One, shown here, 'tops up' an Imperial Airways 'C' Class flying-boat over Southampton's dock area prior to the non-stop transatlantic air mail service in 1939. Note the tanker's customised FRL registration.

 

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Air-to-Air Refuelling Takes Off

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 routes.

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 1960s.

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.

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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 stick.

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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 1949.

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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.