HomeNewsFeaturesDisplay

Flight of the 'Question Mark'

Pictured is the crew of the "Question Mark," including, from left to right, Lieutenant Harry Halvorsen, Capt. Ira Eaker, Staff Sgt. Roy Hooe, Maj. Carl Spaatz (mission commander), Lt. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, and an unidentified crewmember. During a 1929 refueling operation dubbed "Question Mark," a Fokker C-2A was refueled in flight by two modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft.   (Courtesy photo)

Pictured is the crew of the "Question Mark," including, from left to right, Lieutenant Harry Halvorsen, Capt. Ira Eaker, Staff Sgt. Roy Hooe, Maj. Carl Spaatz (mission commander), Lt. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, and an unidentified crewmember. During a 1929 refueling operation dubbed "Question Mark," a Fokker C-2A was refueled in flight by two modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, a member of the historic "Question Mark" aerial refueling operation, adjusts an aircraft gas line. During a 1929 operation dubbed "Question Mark," a Fokker C-2A was refueled in flight by two modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft.  The operation began on New Year's Day in 1929 and ended 150 hours and 40 minutes later on Jan. 7. The two refueling aircraft passed 5,660 gallons of fuel, completing 43 sorties, 12 of which occurred at night.  (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, a member of the historic "Question Mark" aerial refueling operation, adjusts an aircraft gas line. During a 1929 operation dubbed "Question Mark," a Fokker C-2A was refueled in flight by two modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft. The operation began on New Year's Day in 1929 and ended 150 hours and 40 minutes later on Jan. 7. The two refueling aircraft passed 5,660 gallons of fuel, completing 43 sorties, 12 of which occurred at night. (Courtesy photo)

A Fokker C-2A is refueled in flight by a modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft during a refueling operation dubbed "Question Mark" in 1929.   (Courtesy photo)

A Fokker C-2A is refueled in flight by a modified Douglas C-1 transport aircraft during a refueling operation dubbed "Question Mark" in 1929. (Courtesy photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFNS) -- On Jan. 1, 1929, a tri-engined Fokker C-2 aircraft with a crew of five climbed into the southern California sky. This aircraft, dubbed the "Question Mark," was not history's first air refueling mission, but it played a crucial role in the beginning of air refueling efforts and the development of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The flight, born from the ingenuity of Airmen through their experiences in World War I, lasted from Jan. 1-7, 1929; a total of 150 hours and 40 minutes. The crew flew a 110-mile racetrack from Santa Monica, Calif., to San Diego, Calif. They also flew over the New Year's Day Rose Bowl football game. 

During the flight, they made 43 contacts with the tanker aircraft. Each contact lasted about seven and a half minutes, with the two aircraft about 15 to 20 feet apart. Day-time contacts took place at an altitude between 2,000 and 3,000 feet, and the 10 night-time contacts took place between 5,000 and 7,000 feet.

The Question Mark was a high-winged monoplane with two 96-gallon wing tanks supplemented by two 150-gallon tanks installed in the cabin. The two refueling aircraft were Douglas C-1 single-engine bi-planes with two 150-gallon tanks for offloading and a refueling hose that passed through a hatch cut in the floor.

All told, the Question Mark received 5,700 gallons of fuel. During the contacts, the tanker crews also passed oil, food, water and other miscellaneous items, by means of a rope. Neither the Question Mark nor the two refuelers were equipped with radios because of a radio's weight and unreliability. The crews maintained communications via notes dropped to the ground, hand and flashlight signals, and written messages displayed on ground panels and on both planes.

The Question Mark's crew consisted of Maj. Carl Spatz (he later changed the spelling to Spaatz), Captain Ira Eaker, Lieutenant Elwood Quesada, Lt. Harry Halverson and Staff Sgt. Roy Hooe. The crews of the tankers were Capt. Roy Hoyt and Lts. Auby Strickland and Irwin Woodring in the No. 1 aircraft, and Lts. Odas Moon, Joseph G. Hopkins and Andrew F. Solter were in the No. 2 aircraft. Capt. Hugh Elmendorf was in charge of ground operations and logistics for the mission.

Air refueling still was considered by many to be a modern marvel, and it had humble beginnings. The first attempts were in 1921 with the employment of five-gallon gas cans when a U.S. Navy lieutenant, in the back of a Huff-Daland HD-4, used a grappling hook to snag a gas can from a float in the Potomac River. In another attempt, a wing walker with a gas can strapped to his back, climbed from an airborne Lincoln Standard to a Curtiss JN-4 to pour gas into the aircraft's tank.

While these two publicity stunts deserve mention, the first air-to-air refueling using a gravity-flow hose occurred in 1923. Earlier that year, the Army Air Service had equipped two de Haviland DH-4Bs with in-flight hoses. After installation, testing and preparation, the Army Air Service was ready to put it to use. On June 27, one of the DH-4s flew a six-hour-and-38-minute flight that included two air refuelings.

However, the early days of air refueling weren't without danger. Navy Lieutenant P. T. Wagner, the pilot of a refueler was killed during testing in 1923 when the refueling hose became entangled in the right wings of the two aircraft.

At that time, the Army's budget was very limited, and the aviation branch in particular, had not recovered from the 1919 demobilization. The tests in 1923 attempted to show the practicality of air refueling with a flight demonstration that consisted of a more than 37-hour long record-setting flight in August that covered some 3,293 miles, and again with a border-to-border flight from Lamas, Wash., to Tijuana, Mexico, in October.

Between the budgetary constraints and the lack of an actual application, the air refueling testing slowly ground to a halt. The Nov. 18 accident caused the Air Service to stop it altogether.

The idea for the Question Mark flight started with Lt. Quesada. Years later, by-then retired General Quesada recalled that the mission was actually an incidental thought rather than a planned objective.

Additionally, by 1928, officials in Belgium had restarted air refueling experiments, picking up where those in other countries had left off. In the process, the Belgians set a new record of 60 hours and 7 minutes aloft.

Also in 1928, a German aircraft, the Bremen, attempted to fly across the Atlantic. However, it was forced to land in a barren area of Labrador. When the German government requested help from the U.S. State Department, Army Air Corps officials accepted the task.

Maj. Gen. James Fechet, head of the Army Air Corps, led a flight team which consisted of Lt. Quesada and Capt. Eaker. Despite poor weather and periods of heavy ground fog, they found The Bremen and her crew safe and sound.

Lt. Quesada said he was surprised when Captain Eaker "decided to go over the ground fog. I said, my God, what are we going to do if we get caught up here. So then I began to think, my God, wouldn't it be nice if we had a gas station. We could just pull in to a gas station and fill up with gas again."

Captain Eaker took that idea a step further and began organizing the effort for a prolonged refueling technique, with a demonstration that would attract a lot of attention for the Army Air Corps.

The Question Mark's mission portended little militarily. Based on the success of this air refueling mission, Army Air Corps officials scheduled a formal demonstration in the spring of 1929 as part of an Army war game maneuver.

During the demonstration, a Keystone B-3A bomber was to fly, accompanied by a Douglas tanker, from Dayton, Ohio, on a simulated bombing mission over New York City's harbor, and then return. Refueling was to occur over Washington, D.C., during both parts of the mission. However, a network of thunderstorms between Ohio and Washington caused the aircraft to become separated.

Icing conditions forced the tanker to make an emergency landing in Uniontown, Penn., where it lodged itself in the mud. The bomber successfully pressed on to New York City and returned to Washington without the tanker's support.

With this disappointment, the U.S. Army Department shelved the idea of air refueling for another 12 years.

Still, in its primary objective, the Question Mark was a huge success.

"It got tremendous public attention, which is exactly what [we] had in mind," said General Quesada. "The Question Mark had no noble purpose. It wasn't going to create an operational procedure that would plunge the Air Force into a great superior power that would make it unnecessary to have an Army or a Navy. The purpose was to attract attention. I think it would be somewhat abusive not to recognize that."

In fact, it captured the public's imagination. American aviators were enthralled with the concept of air refueling. By May 26, 1929, a pair of commercial pilots in Texas, using a reconditioned Ryan Brougham monoplane, broke the Question Mark's record with 172 hours and 32 minutes in the air. From then on, the record continued to be extended.

Comment on this story   (comments may be published on Air Force Link)

View the comments/letters page 

Engage

Twitter
The newest aircraft in the #AirForce fleet has been christened the F-15EX Eagle II. The Eagle II includes the lates… https://t.co/4TIA52fk06
Twitter
Congratulations to the Royal Danish Air Force on the delivery of their first F-35 today! Our Danish friends have be… https://t.co/Gg4fduigTg
Twitter
RT @GenCQBrownJr: Thank you to @Princeton for having me speak today with their University Lecture Series. I greatly appreciate the opportun…
Twitter
#DYK The #AirForce is the only military branch that has service-wide guidance on acquisition programs, defining cyb… https://t.co/UJZcxugySn
Twitter
RT @366FW: Air Force Chief of Staff @GenCQBrownJr shares some words of wisdom with our Gunfighters! Our Airmen continue to #acceleratecha
Twitter
April is recognized as the Month of the Military Child. The ever-changing military lifestyle impacts every member o… https://t.co/hmvocXQaGL
Twitter
Airmanship 200 is the second of three development courses that new #Airmen receive to better understand #AirForce v… https://t.co/1rueS9ToLP
Twitter
#ICYMI -- The Department of the Air Force published a website where #Airmen and @SpaceForceDoD #Guardians can acces… https://t.co/0YJcST5XaT
Twitter
Combating #COVID19 one shot at a time. https://t.co/EVyenHCi5D
Twitter
The Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator is helpin… https://t.co/cfsdOX43hY
Twitter
.@LRAFB, Arkansas, Airmen completed 106 sorties, 254 flying hours, and nearly 2,000 training events during a multi-… https://t.co/3YOSh8DvcT
Twitter
Today is Gold Star Spouses Day. It honors the surviving loved ones of military service members killed in the line o… https://t.co/JYCacpkds5
Twitter
Everyone is susceptible to invisible wounds. These wounds have an impact can develop at any time, in any place, in… https://t.co/XxPKyovJc9
Twitter
#AirForce Civil Engineer Center Operation Directorate teams are following safety protocols and working closely with… https://t.co/4IjMrV240S
Twitter
RT @grandslamwing: Beware of frostbite 🥶 Our #TeamAUAB cryogenics team brave the heat of the flightline to deliver aircrew the frigid, but…
Twitter
Being able to recognize an invisible wound could save a life. Learn more about available resources here:… https://t.co/M9JOy6XRWn
Twitter
“When you believe in something, you just have to put your heart and soul into it and don’t worry about what the res… https://t.co/K44qwDwFMG
Twitter
Second Lt. Max Atkinson, a student pilot in the 71st Student Squadron at Vance AFB saved the life of a local motorc… https://t.co/SHv1e8Te6M
Twitter
The 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron conducted four functional ground tests of the Air Launched Cruise Missile at… https://t.co/jerYunV1vQ
Twitter
RT @CENTCOM: #Airmen from the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing @grandslamwing participated in the recent @USAFCENT's Agile Combat Employment ca…
Facebook
The newest Air Force Podcast recently dropped. Listen to a small snippet of CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright talk with Staff Sgt. New about resiliency. Listen to the entire podcast on Youtube: https://go.usa.gov/xpnAD or Subscribe to The Air Force Podcast on iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/podcast/the-air-force-podcast/id1264107694?mt=2
Facebook
Our mantra, "Always ready!" It's the spirit we fly by! #B2Tuesday
Facebook
Need some motivation to get your week started off right? Listen as CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright weighs in...
Facebook
The U.S. Air Force Academy gives its cadets some unique opportunities. Ride along one of this opportunities.
Facebook
A United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels an F-22 Raptor over northern Iraq, Nov. 6, 2019. U.S. Central Command operations deter adversaries and demonstrate support for allies and partners in the region. (Video by Staff Sgt. Daniel Snider)
Facebook
Although the Silver Star is the third-highest military medal, it's not given often. Today, TSgt Cody Smith was the 49th Special Tactics Airman to receive this medal since Sept. 11th, 2001. Read more of TSgt Smith's amazing story: https://www.airforcespecialtactics.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2024815/special-tactics-airman-battled-through-injuries-awarded-silver-star/fbclid/IwAR2LZWwx1VHdTnQe39rIEBOuJS_0JvMQBBGt7I-E6zsxxn-Lx9387yu43Bc/ Cannon Air Force Base Air Force Special Operations Command United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)
Facebook
Tune in as our Air Force musicians along with other military musicians are awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Facebook
Like Us
Twitter
1,340,427
Follow Us