The 509th pioneers aerial refueling

A KB-29 Superfortress (tanker) from the 509th Bombardment Group (BG) at Roswell Army Air Field, N.M., refuels an aircraft mid-flight. The 509th BG was chosen to pioneer aerial refueling when it received the KB-29 in 1948. (Courtesy photo)

A KB-29 Superfortress (tanker) from the 509th Bombardment Group (BG) at Roswell Army Air Field, N.M., refuels an aircraft mid-flight. The 509th BG was chosen to pioneer aerial refueling when it received the KB-29 in 1948. (Courtesy photo)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Ask any of the Airmen stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, how the base's mission of strategic deterrence, global power and combat support anytime, anywhere is possible, and they'll tell you to take a look at the aircraft lining the flightline.

Over the past century, air power has been developing -- from more advanced designs and weapons systems to increased range and capabilities, the Air Force is ever-evolving to ensure today's missions are carried out successfully.

The 509th Bomb Wing (BW) takes part in a long history; a part of the legacy we know today can be traced back to the improvement of tankers, and it's this contribution that has enhanced operations today.

"This is one more example of how the 509th was integral in the development of tactics, techniques and procedures that impacted not only the Wing, but the whole Air Force," said David Easley, the 509th BW historian.

In 1947, the 509th fell under a different title and location. Known to the Airmen at Roswell Army Air Field, New Mexico, as the 509th Bombardment Group (BG), their mission was to maintain combat proficiency with the B-29 Superfortress bombers and the F-51 Mustang and F-84 Thunderjet fighters.

At the time, Roswell was the only experienced nuclear force charged with strategic bombardment training. When the range to which aircraft could travel kept pilots from reaching their destination as quickly as possible, the 509th BG made it a priority to expand upon the concept of aircraft refueling.

Under the command of General Curtis LeMay, the first two squadrons for aerial refueling were formed, and the 509th Air Refueling Squadron was born.

As flexibility is oftentimes said to be the key to air power, the mission was reshaped to accommodate practicing air-refueling concepts and procedures on the KB-29 Superfortress.

As there was an abundance of the B-29, these bombers would be modified to serve another purpose. The KB-29, an aircraft prototype capable of providing in-flight refueling, was developed.

After the end of World War II, it was clear that the race to develop the finest aircraft would be paramount, as air-to-air combat and ground attacks were becoming increasingly common in warfare.

The way militaries fought in conflicts had changed forever, and with advancements in aerial refueling, aircraft no longer had to divert, thus the potential radius of combat operations increased drastically.

Fast-forward nearly seven decades and many more advances in aerial combat, and the mission of the 509th has come a long way.

The B-2 Spirit, housed at Whiteman, and oftentimes deployed to support the mission abroad, couldn't have reached the capabilities it has today without the improvements made by generations prior.

"The advancements made back in the 1950s in air refueling technology and capability allowed the U.S. Air Force to force project on a global scale," said U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Pyburn, the 509th Operations Group commander. "That leap revolutionized how we employ airpower. This became evident in the Strategic Air Command deterrence missions of the 1960s, as well as during the war in Southeast Asia, and firmly established the U.S. Air Force as the preeminent air force in the world.

"We continue to hold that distinction today," added Pyburn. "While other countries possess the ability to air refuel, no one else has the capacity that the U.S. Air Force has. For more than 60 years, and through multiple conflicts and crises, our extensive tanker fleet has allowed us to place U.S. and coalition assets either on the ground or in the air as required at a time and place, and for a duration of our choosing."

To be the world's greatest air force, Airmen must continue to be innovative. The only thing that is constant is change ... With the B-2's, along with many other premier aircraft which provide worldwide capability, it's no wonder the U.S. Air Force takes the lead in airpower.