How Sir Alan Cobham Set the Stage for Air Refuelling

Colin Cruddas

3 mins

26 Mar 2019

Cobham’s long-distance flying experience had taught him the importance of maximising an aircraft’s range and performance. He reasoned that if a machine could be safely refuelled in flight, a massive improvement in time, money and resources could be achieved.

Flight Refuelling Ltd

Throughout the Thirties, various schemes were considered by the military and civil establishments but proved largely unsuccessful. Cobham, however, having had the foresight to meet the challenge by forming a specialist company, Flight Refuelling Ltd in 1934 and working alongside Imperial Airways, devised a system that allowed the company’s flying-boats to cross the Atlantic non-stop by late 1939.

Handley Page Harrow refuelling an Imperial Airways ‘C’ Class flying-boat.

The war precluded further civil developments but Cobham continually stalked the corridors of power to get his latest methods adopted by the Air Ministry. His determination was met by Service chiefs’ refusal to detach resources from higher priority projects until it was decided that a large force of RAF bombers would be equipped as tankers and receivers prior to dispatch to the Far East in 1944.

With material supply and training well underway, Cobham’s hopes were later dashed when the American forces advanced toward Japan and overran airfields that put Tokyo within range of unrefuelled USAAF aircraft.

The need for distance

Cobham’s company developments continued but success finally came when, during the Cold War, the range of the USAF B.29 proved insufficient to reach long-distance targets in the Soviet bloc.

Air refuelling provided the answer and Cobham, unsurprisingly, was called upon to provide the ‘know how’ and hardware in a hurry. This he was able to do, having, unknown to the Americans, stockpiled material cancelled earlier following the RAF’s Far East decision.

When it was decided to send a number of USAF bombers and fighters to Flight Refuelling’s base at Tarrant Rushton in Dorset for system installation and flight test, it showed the conversions to be technically feasible.

But a massive financial error when bidding for the fixed-price contract meant that the costs involved rose way above the company’s estimate and a serious delay in completion of the work. This led to a compromise that involved selling all the rights to manufacture to the US government for the price of the cost increase. In Cobham’s words it was ‘akin to selling the family silver.’

The US Airforce Boeing B-50 Superfortress, Lucky Lady II being refueled by Grappled-line looped-hose during the first non-stop circumnavigation of the world by air (1949).

From Berlin to the Buccaneers

During the late Forties and early Fifties, the Cobham company fortunes continued to fluctuate. A heavy involvement in the Berlin Airlift with the firm’s Lancaster fleet delivering virtually the city’s entire amount of domestic heating oil, but not without loss of aircrew and two machines.

Financial loss was also incurred when with no prior notice to Cobham, the government abruptly cancelled the contract leaving Cobham having to pay a large number of aircrew and others for several weeks of inactivity until the formal end of contract was reached.

But all was far from lost for after its adoption by the US Navy and Marines, the Royal Navy also introduced air refuelling for its carrier-borne force of Sea Vixens, Scimitars and Buccaneers.

The RAF then followed suit and similarly equipped its ‘V’ bomber force with the ‘Probe and Drogue’ system also used successfully over the past fifty years by a large number of the world’s air forces.

A Meteor about to receive fuel.

Sir Alan Cobham ranked alongside the select number of pioneering aviators – Richard Fairey, Frederick Handley Page and Alliott Verdon Roe to name but a few – who later adapted their innovative flying and engineering skills to managing highly successful companies.

Sir Alan commanded the respect of all who knew him. He died in 1973 aged 79, but his name lives on with leading aerospace and defence contractor Cobham plc.

Colin Cruddas served for many years as the official archivist of the international aerospace company Cobham Plc and is uniquely qualified to write the definitive biography of one of the greatest pioneers in aviation history. His new book, ‘Sir Alan Cobham: The Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation To The Masses‘ was published on 22 October 2018 by Pen and Sword.