Russell Radtke: Refueling over Cambodia
Near the end of the Vietnam War Russell Radtke worked as an inflight refuel specialist. He flew in a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker as a crew member and refueled jets in-flight. Along with refueling his duties also included map making, loading the plane, and dealing with the weight and balance of the plane during flight.
“If we had to carry passengers I was the loadmaster and flight attendant. I had to give the same briefing about how to open the emergency doors, and usually we carried 10 parachutes onboard; if we had less than 10 people there was a plan to jump out if we had to, if we had more than 10 people we had to crash the plane,” Radtke laughed.
Radtke, a member of the Creek Nation, was born in Tulsa in 1954. He joined the Air Force after he finished High School. “I signed up in June 1972 for the inactive reserves, and I went in for active duty on September 1, 1972.”
Radtke had planned on becoming an aircraft and environmental systems specialist, a mechanic, but when the time came to choose he trained to be an inflight refuel specialist, also called a boom operator. After survival school and four months of technical training Radtke was stationed at Altus Air Force base in his home state of Oklahoma. He was in the 11th Air Refueling Squadron.
“Then September 7, 1973, I went to Thailand for 90 days and I refueled a lot of different airplanes there, some I never even heard of,” Radtke said. “One day there were 64 fighters flying to Southeast Asia and I had 32 scheduled for me to refuel alone. I ended up refueling 29 airplanes that day.” At that time the Vietnam War was winding down, but Radtke flew in one official combat mission over Cambodia refueling “Wild Weasels,” planes equipped with radar seeking missiles that baited enemy anti-aircraft into targeting it so it could trace back to the source for a precise target.
In December of 1973 Radtke was back in the U.S. as a part of the Strategic Air Command. He was responsible for refueling the B-52 Bombers that were on alert and carrying nuclear warheads. “For every B-52 there was a tanker, a KC 135, sitting on the end of the runway, waiting to take off in case of war. We went on alert Thursday morning and would get off alert the next Thursday morning. If the wind was real light we could go onto the main base, but if the wind was from the North and we were on the North end of the runway we were restricted for 7 days to that little compound, and it got boring.”
Radtke spent 30 days in Spain in 1975, which he loved. He was scheduled to return to Thailand but the U.S. pulled out shortly before he was to depart—detouring him to Alaska for a month.
“When I got up there it was -40 (degrees Fahrenheit), and I never made it off base because it was cold the whole time. While I was in Alaska I went over the North Pole three times and back, refueling. We had electronic airplanes, Boeing EC 135s, that monitored the throughways over Russia. Three tankers and the EC 135s would fly toward the North Pole; as we coasted out of the North coast of Alaska one tanker would refuel and they would turn around and go back to the base. We would fly about another hour and a half and another tanker would refuel, then he would turn around and go to base. And all three times we went, as soon as we got over the North Pole, that’s when I started refueling. Then the 3rd 135 would go back and land in England, and we would turn around and go back to Alaska. Those were like 12 and 13 hour flights to the North Pole and back.”
In May of 1976 Radtke was sent back to Spain for a month. He volunteered to go to Iran, but at the last minute he was told he couldn’t leave Spain because, at that time, he was the only qualified person in Europe who could refuel the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy.
Radtke got out of the service in August of 1976. Before he left he had already paid his tuition to go to Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa. He was hired by the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in 1979 as a fuel system specialist on the F4 Phantom II. In 1985 he was laid off from McDonnell Douglas and got a job with American Airlines where he first worked on maintaining the seats in the airliners, but wound up working in testing and calibrations.
Radtke lost his wife of 25 years in 2008 and took immediate retirement. He has two step children, and two step grandchildren that he and his wife raised. He has two motorcycles that he rides and he has become a regular in Tulsa’s Joe Station Dog Park.