When a Tanker Saved a Fighter Plane That Was About To Crash

On the 5th of September, 1983, 4 USAF F-4E Phantom jets were flying over the Atlantic en route to Europe along with the support of a KC-135 known as “North Star.” These five aircraft were part of a larger number of Phantoms and tankers on a routine trans-Atlantic flight. To make the crossing, the Phantoms would need to tank a total of 8 times to fill their thirsty engines.

Midway across the Atlantic, and just prior to the fourth refuel, one of the F-4Es piloted by Maj. Jon “Ghost” Alexander and his Weapons Systems Officer started to develop some engine problems. After a quick visual from one of the other Phantoms, it was discovered Ghost’s F-4E was bleeding oil. The emergency divert base at Gander, Newfoundland was contacted with an emergency declaration.

Shortly after, things began to rapidly deteriorate when the still turning, but barely burning turbines started to wind down. The Phantom, which is known for its dependence on power to keep flying through the sky, started to bleed airspeed and altitude simultaneously.

At this point, with the number two engine barely hanging on, the number one began to struggle with the higher temperatures and load of keeping the Phantom airborne. Watching the airspeed decay, Ghost decided to jettison his external tanks to reduce drag and weight in hopes of saving his dying jet.

Struggling with a dying number one, and an overheating number two, all the while maintaining a 45-degree nose-up attitude to keep far away from the frigid Atlantic beneath. But sadly for Ghost and his WSO, things were about to go even further south. Moments after dropping his tanks, his jet’s hydraulic system failed, crippling the stricken jet even further. The list of available options was reduced to one.


Still 520 miles out of Gander, and facing a certain death in the waters below, “North Star” KC-135, crewed by Captain Robert Goodman, Captain Michael Clover, First Lieutenant Karol Wojcikowski and Staff Sergeant Douglas Simmons pulled high and in front of Ghost’s Phantom, dropping flaps and slats to slow to the speed of the crippled jet.

As the altitude dropped to 4000 feet over the water, North Star hooked up with Ghost’s Phantom, and started to transfer fuel to his starving J-79 engines. Considering the lack of hydraulics, and asymmetric thrust produced by the F-4, as well as the high angle of attack flown by both aircraft at low airspeed and altitude, this was no easy feat.

The F-4E could not hold on, and broke away from the tanker, nose down in a final decent towards the waters below. The crew of North Star pushed their nose over and chased the Phantom lower and slower, this time indicating as little as 190 knots at 1,400 feet above the waves.

Amazingly, holding the connection, North Star began to actually tow Ghost’s Phantom for the final 160 miles to Gander, using nothing but the fueling boom.

As the coast of Newfoundland appeared on the horizon, and at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Ghost was able to coax a little power out of his now cooled number two engine, disengaged from the boom, and was now left with the simple proposition of landing a Phantom that was only capable of banking left. Ghost’s WSO Wojcikowski quickly formulated an approach that would allow the jet to align with Gander’s main runway while taking into account the jets limited performance abilities.

Moments later, Ghost and his WSO touched down safe and dry on the runway complex at Gander, and rolled to a stop.

The crew of North Star all received the Mackay Trophy for their efforts above and beyond the call of duty in saving the F-4E crew from certain death in the waters below.

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