taliation in a series of bombing missions aptly
dubbed “Sledgehammer” and “Rock Crusher.”
The object was to turn Iwo’s airfields into rubble.
And it succeeded.
U.S. Marines captured Iwo Jima in February
1945, setting the stage for missions of epic endurance.
Iwo to Tokyo was 760 statute miles— 15,000
round trip or seven hours cruise time by Mustang.
The VLRs were not only the longest fighter mis-
sions of the war, but were also almost entirely over
water. To some pilots, the 20 to 60 minutes over
Japan were welcomed to dispel the monotony
of the long flight north. Lt. Harve Phipps of the
21st Fighter Group said, “I think the combat break
midway in the missions served to stimulate you
enough that you didn’t get bored. The main prob-
lem was the cramped space for the time involved.”
For the return trip Maj. Harry Crim, command-
ing the 531st FS, explained, “We dropped our
tanks, shot up all our ammo, and tested the relief
tube.” Then it was a matter of managing fuel for
the 750-mile flight home. Cruising at 40 gallons
per hour could burn up a set of plugs, but the
hardy Merlin engines did not seem to mind.”
WW II missions remain the longest unrefueled
combat fighter flights. With jet aircraft came rou-
tine in-flight refueling, including trans-oceanic
trips. Perhaps the world record was logged in
1990 when U.S. Air Force F-15s and F-16s flew
to Arabia from the continental United States. In
some cases the fighters were airborne 17 hours
with six or more “plugs” from tankers.
Whether they know it or not, today’s “
self-ide-ploying” fighter pilots are heir to a heritage dating back 70 years, when getting there was more
than half the mission.
The European air war depended
on drop tanks as much as
ammunition. A maintenance
man at a British airfield stands
by to load his P-51B for the next
long-range mission. (Photo
courtesy of Stan Piet)