Stories in Survivability: Remembering the North Star’s Life-Saving Tow 40 Years Ago
By Eric Edwards
Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives
Throughout history, explorers, sailors, and other travelers have relied on the North Star to lead them safely home. As a result, the night sky’s most recognizable heavenly body is now regarded in many cultures not just as a dependable navigational tool but also as a symbol for the virtues of dependability, steadfastness, and guiding truth. How appropriate it is then that an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker—operating under the call sign “North Star”—once served as the unlikely guide by which a distressed F-4 Phantom fighter jet was led to safety over the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The incident, which occurred 40 years ago this fall, would be recognized not only as the Air Force’s most meritorious flight of the year but also as yet another example of the toughness and adaptability of U.S. combat aircraft and the brave and innovative personnel who operate them.
JUST A ‘ROUTINE’ FLIGHT
On 5 September 1983, a group of 24 F-4E Phantom II jets (like that shown in Figure 1) lifted off from Seymour Johnson AFB near Goldsboro, NC, and turned northeast to begin a routine trans-Atlantic flight to Germany. Of course, “routine” in military aviation can be a deceiving term, as U.S. combat aircraft are regularly called on to perform extraordinary and dangerous missions in all types of conditions all around the globe. And in this case, the F-4’s, with limited fuel capacity and range, were heading out over a frigid ocean for a many-hour flight with only a fraction of the fuel needed to get them safely to the other side [1, 2].
Accordingly, the Phantoms were escorted by eight refueling tankers: four KC-135A Stratotankers (such as that shown in Figure 2) and four KC-10 Extenders. Together, these eight flying gas stations would be responsible for keeping all the jets airborne over the water via a series of eight planned aerial refuelings. One of the KC-135’s, call sign “North Star,” was operated by Crew E-113 of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. Onboard were the flight crew (shown in Figure 3)—Capt. Robert Goodman (pilot), Capt. Michael Clover (copilot), 1st Lt. Karol “Wojo” Wojcikowski (navigator), and SSgt. Douglas Simmons (boom operator)—as well as SSgt. Michael Bouchard (crew chief), A1C Ron Craft (assistant crew chief),
Loaded with 70,000 lbs. of fuel, the North Star was paired up with one of the KC-10’s, which would share the refueling responsibilities for their “cell” of four Phantoms across the ocean. The two tankers successfully completed their first three fuel transfers without incident. The situation quickly changed, however, as North Star prepared to gas up its F-4’s for the fourth time. Without warning, the no. 2 General Electric J-79 engine on one of the twin-engine Phantoms began having trouble. Piloting the F-4 was Maj. Jon “Ghost” Alexander, with Maj. Dan Silvis serving as the weapons system officer (WSO) in the seat behind him (see Figure 4). Maj. Alexander quickly asked his wingman to circle underneath his now-struggling airplane to see if he could identify the issue. The report that came back wasn’t good: the engine was leaking oil badly [1, 2].
500 MILES FROM SAFETY
Maj. Alexander immediately declared an emergency and rerouted his plane toward the closest emergency divert base. Unfortunately, that base—and essentially the nearest patch of land—was Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada, more than 500 miles away . In between, lay nothing but a seemingly endless stretch of cold, black ocean.
As the minutes ticked by and the plane’s issues started mounting up, it was increasingly clear that, unless something could be figured out quickly, the Phantom wouldn’t be able to make it to land and safety. With engine no. 2 still turning but providing little thrust, the supersonic-capable fighter continued to lose lift, airspeed, and altitude. Maj. Alexander tried to squeeze all he could out of the remaining engine, but it was now overheating as it struggled to keep the heavily loaded Phantom in the air. The jet had been equipped with three external drop fuel tanks under the wings to help extend its range during the trip. Maj. Alexander quickly jettisoned the heavy tanks to reduce the aircraft’s weight and drag. This jettison helped, but the plane still had to fly at an odd 45°, nose-up attitude to remain aloft .
The situation then went from bad to worse when the F-4’s hydraulic system also went partially dead, preventing the aircraft from being able to bank or turn right. Everyone realized that the list of available options for Majs. Alexander and Silvis was quickly shrinking to just one: ejection. But everyone also realized that option wasn’t a good one at all. According to some estimates, the two airmen would have only about 90 s of consciousness, followed by near-certain death, after they entered the North Atlantic’s icy waters and 60-ft swells . And those swells were growing closer and closer to the dying plane every minute.
AN UNLIKELY SOLUTION
Nearby in the North Star, Capt. Goodman had been instructed by the mission commander to stay with the F-4 and provide whatever assistance he could, and the crew was busy trying to figure out what that assistance might be . The first priority was to get the F-4 refueled again (as shown in Figure 5) so it could continue flying (or at least trying to fly). But in the
Phantom’s disabled condition, this task itself was now an extremely risky one, not only for Majs. Alexander and Silvis but also for the KC-135 crew and all of its passengers. If the crew wasn’t careful, a potential loss of 1 aircraft and 2 souls could easily be turned into an actual loss of 2 aircraft and 30 souls.
Capts. Goodman and Clover carefully positioned the Stratotanker forward and above the Phantom and used virtually every technique they could to slow the KC-135 down enough to match the F-4’s dangerously slow top speed. By setting their engines to idle; dropping their flaps, slats, and landing gear; deploying their airbrakes; placing themselves in a high angle of attack; and even rocking the airplane back and forth; they were able to slow the North Star to below 200 knots (just above the tanker’s normal landing speed) to attempt the refueling.
“The only thing keeping us airborne was we were nose down in a dive,” recalls former Assistant Crew Chief Ron Craft. “Our boom operator [SSgt. Simmons], even in these conditions, was able to make a hook-up on the first shot. We used our refueling boom as a tow bar and brought [the F-4] out of a dive and leveled him off at about 9,000 feet, but we must have gone a little too fast, and it was a brute-force disconnect. He broke off and went into another dive. We had to do the whole scenario over again. The second time we made the hook-up and leveled off, we were only 1,500 feet off the water, watching waves break” .
After several more failed hook-up attempts and brute-force disconnects, the KC-135 was able not only to remain locked on to the Phantom and transfer fuel but also to pull the jet up to a higher altitude and toward safety.
“The dead weight of that fighter,” Craft remembers, “was bending our boom like you’re bringing a bigmouth bass out of the reservoir. It’s not supposed to bend. We thought we were going to watch it break off, but it held” .
Remarkably, the North Star ended up sustaining its life-saving aerial tow of the F-4 for almost 200 miles, which allowed the Phantom’s no. 1 engine to cool down enough so the jet was able to once again maintain altitude on its own. And that left just one last problem to overcome. With much of the F-4’s hydraulic system still inoperable, the plane still couldn’t bank or turn right. So, as the pair of aircraft approached the much-anticipated Canadian coast, Lt. Wojcikowski computed a route that would allow Maj. Alexander to approach the airfield, line up with the runway, and land the Phantom using only left turns .
Finally, some 5½ hrs. after the “routine” flight had begun, the wheels of both planes touched down on the runway at Gander . Majs. Alexander and Silvis were safe and sound, as were the crew and passengers of the KC-135. The North Star had lived up to its name and once again had led some weary travelers safely home.
THE MACKAY TROPHY
For its heroic efforts in rescuing the F-4 and likely saving the lives of Majs. Alexander and Silvis, the crew of the North Star was awarded the Air Force’s 1983 Mackay Trophy (shown in Figure 6). The trophy, which is permanently housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, has been presented annually since 1911 for “the most meritorious flight of the year” by an Air Force person, persons, or organization. Other Mackay honorees have included Eddie Rickenbacker (the highest scoring American ace of World War I) in 1918; the crew of the first round-the-world flight in 1924; Chuck Yeager (the first pilot to break the sound barrier) in 1947; and many lesser-known aircrews involved in equally remarkable acts of bravery, selflessness, and effectiveness during combat, rescue, and other missions .
In the larger picture, however, the story of the North Star’s life-saving tow across the Atlantic 40 years ago isn’t just a story about the skill and bravery of one KC-135 crew. It’s also an enduring testament to all those in the military aviation and survivability industry—operators, designers, manufacturers, testers, analysts, maintainers, and others—who have long worked, and continue to work, to make U.S. combat aircraft the toughest, most survivable, and most effective aircraft possible.
For more information about the North Star incident (as well as ongoing efforts to document the story in a feature-length film), see the “Hell Over High Water” Facebook page .
 D’Costa, Ian. “North Star: How a KC-135 Crew Saved an F-4 Phantom Over the Atlantic.” TACAIRNET, https://tacairnet.com/2014/10/21/ north-star-how-a-kc-135-crew-saved-an-f-4-phantom-over-the-atlantic/#comments, 21 October 2014, accessed 4 January 2023.
 Leone, Dario. “The Story of North Star, the KC-135 Stratotanker That Saved an F-4 Phantom Over the Atlantic.” https://theaviationgeekclub. com/the-story-of-north-star-the-kc-135-stratotanker-that-saved-an-f-4-phantom-over-the-atlantic/, 11 March 2019, accessed 4 January 2023.
 Experimental Aircraft Association. “KC-135 Crew Involved in F-4 Rescue to Speak at Theater in the Woods.” https://www.eaa.org/airventure/ eaa-airventure-news-and-multimedia/eaa-airventure-news/eaa-airventure-oshkosh/05-24-2018- kc-135-crew-involved-in-f-4-rescue-to-speak-at-theater-in-the-woods, 24 May 2018, accessed 4 January 2023.
 National Aeronautic Association. “Mackay Trophy.” https://naa.aero/awards/awards-and-trophies/mackay-trophy/, accessed 4 January 2023.
 “Hell Over High Water.” https://www.facebook.com/helloverhighwater, accessed 4 January 2023.