Question Mark (aircraft)

Question Mark (aircraft)

"Question Mark" was a modified Atlantic-Fokker C-2A airplane, modified and flown by aviators from the United States Army Air Corps to experiment with aerial refueling. The flight took place from January 1 to January 7, 1929.


The first complete inflight refueling between two aircraft [While they had passed minor amounts of fuel in practice, the June 27 flight was the first aerial refueling mission, an attempt to set an endurance mark.] took place on June 27, 1923, when two Boeing-built deHaviland DH-4Bs of the United States Army Air Service accomplished the feat over San Diego's Rockwell Field. Subsequently the same group of airmen established an endurance record of remaining aloft for more than 37 hours in August 1923, using nine aerial refuelings. In June 1928, a new endurance record of more than 61 hours was established in Belgium by Adjutant Louis Crooy and Sgt. Victor Groenen, also using aerial refueling. [Richard K. Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling: Highlights 1923-1998", p.3.]

2nd Lt. Elwood R. Quesada, an engineer of the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed at Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., developed a plan with a U.S. Marine Corps aviator from Anacostia Naval Air Station to break the Belgians' record. [A record of 65 hours 31 mins had also been set in 1928 by a pair of Germans, Johann Risticz and Wilhelm Zimmerman, but they had not refueled during the flight.] The plan was reviewed by Capt. Ira C. Eaker, an aide to Assistant Secretary of War for Air F. Trubee Davison. Eaker took it to Maj. Gen. James E. Fechet, Chief of the United States Army Air Corps. Both Fechet and Davison approved the project on the condition that it demonstrate a military application and not just as a publicity stunt. [Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling", p.3.] Overall command of the project was given to Major Carl A. Spaatz (who then spelled his named "Spatz"), the Assistant G-3 for Training and Operations in Fechet's office.

Preparations and planning

Aircraft modification

A new Atlantic-Fokker C-2A transport, serial number 28-120, assigned to the 14th Bombardment Squadron at Bolling Field, was flown to Middletown Air Depot, Pennsylvania, and modified for the project. [ [ Joe Baugher, 1922-1929 USAAS Serial Numbers] ] The C-2A was an American-built military version of the Fokker F.VIIa-3m trimotor, a high-wing monoplane with a gross weight of 10,395 pounds, re-engined with three Wright R-790 motors producing 220 HP (174kW) each. The C-2A had an internal fuel capacity of 192 gallons in a pair of wing tanks, and for the project two 150-gallon tanks were installed in the cargo cabin. A hatch was cut in the roof of the C-2 behind the wing for transfer of the fuel hose and passage of supplies from the tanker to the receiver. 72-octane aviation gasoline would be received in 100-gallon increments of approximately 90-seconds duration. [ [ National Aviation Hall of Fame, Carl A. Spaatz biography] ]

A 45-gallon tank was used to provide engine oil to the three motors, replenished by inflight deliveries of 5-gallon cans of Pennzoil triple-extra-heavy lowered on slings. [Maurer Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", p. 264.] A copper tubing system was installed in an attempt to adequately lubricate the rocker arms of the engines inflight. Doorways were cut on each side of the cockpit and catwalks built on the wings to enable Hooe to access the engines for emergency maintenance. To reduce propeller noise, the two wing engines were mounted with Westinghouse twin-blade Micarta propellers, while the nose engine used a Standard three-blade steel propeller.

As word of the project spread, its members were continually being asked how long they expected to remain aloft. Their responses were generally to the effect: "That is the question." A large question mark was painted on each side of the fuselage to provoke interest in the endurance flight.

To deliver the fuel, two Douglas C-1 single-engine transports were modified, s/n 25-428 as Refueling Airplane No. 1 and s/n 25-432 as Refueling Airplane No. 2. The bi-plane C-1s were evolved from the Douglas World Cruiser's design, with the pilots side-by-side in an open cockpit forward of the wing. Each was modified by installing two 150-gallon tanks in its cargo compartment attached to a lead-weighted 50-foot length of 2.5 inch fire hose. The nozzle of the hose had a quick-closing valve on the tanker's end and was tightly wrapped with copper wire, one end of which could be attached to a corresponding copper plate mounted in "Question Mark" to ground the hose. The C-1's would each carry a third crewman in the cargo compartment to reel out the hose or lower a supply rope, and to work the shutoff valve.


The operation was planned to begin January 1, 1929, at Los Angeles, California, both to take advantage of weather conditions and to generate publicity by overflying the 1929 Rose Bowl football game played that day in Pasadena. The refueling planes would be situated at each end of a 110-mile long racetrack oval, one at Rockwell Field in San Diego and the other at the Metropolitan Airport, now Van Nuys Airport. The flight would originate and terminate there in order for any endurance record to be officially recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Van Nuys was chosen over an existing dirt strip airfield, Mines Field, located at El Segundo, because the weather in Van Nuys was considered more reliable, particularly in regard to temperature inversions and smog. Metropolitan was also an operational facility while Mines Field had just been procured by the City of Los Angeles for use as a commercial airport. The project arrived there in December 1928 to begin preparations for the flight, with Capt. Hugh M. Elmendorf in charge of logistics and maintenance.

Because of weight considerations and the unreliability of radios, none was installed in the "Question Mark". All communications between the aircraft or between "Question Mark" and the ground had to be accomplished using flags, flares, flashlights, weighted message bags, notes tied to the supply lines, or messages written in chalk on the fuselages of PW-9D fighters, painted black and nicknamed "blackboard planes". (One such message written on the side of a 95th Pursuit Squadron is externally linked below.)

ix days in the air


The crew of "Question Mark" consisted of Maj. Spaatz, Capt. Eaker, 1st Lt. Harry A. Halverson, 2nd Lt. Quesada, and Sgt. Roy W. Hooe. Refueling Airplane No. 1 at Rockwell was crewed by pilots Capt. Ross G. Hoyt and 1st Lt. Auby C. Strickland, with 2nd Lt. Irwin A. Woodring reeling the hose. Refueling Airplane No. 2 at Van Nuys was crewed by pilots 1st Lt. Odas Moon and 2nd Lt. Joseph G. Hopkins, and hose handler 2nd Lt. Andrew F. Salter. [Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling", pp.3-4.]

Four pilots of the 95th Pursuit Squadron, based at Rockwell Field, flew the PW-9 "blackboard planes": 1st Lt. Archie F. Roth, and 2nd Lts. Homer W. Kiefer, Norman H. Ives, and Roger V. Williams. [Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", p.263.]

Takeoff and refueling

"Question Mark" took off from Van Nuys at 7:26 a.m. on New Years Day 1929 with Capt. Eaker at the controls, carrying only 100 gallons of fuel to save takeoff weight. Aboard the "Question Mark", either Halverson and Quesada did most of the piloting during cruising flight while Eaker monitored the throttles for smoothest engine performance. A log was kept by the flight officer (co-pilot) and dropped to the ground daily, and Eaker was responsible for winding the barograph, an instrument that continuously recorded altitude and time as documentary evidence for the records. [Maurer "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", p.261.]

Less than an hour later Lt. Moon completed the first refueling over Van Nuys. During refuelings, Eaker and Halverson manned the controls, Spaatz and Quesada supervised the fuel exchange, and Hooe operated a "wobble" pump. The C-1 approached the "Question Mark" from above and behind, maintaining 20 to 30 feet of vertical separation, until in a position slightly ahead of the C-2. Both aircraft stabilized in level flight at 80mph and the hose was reeled out. Maj. Spaatz climbed on a platform below the open hatch, and wearing rain gear and goggles for protection against fuel spills, grounded the hose and then placed it in a receptacle mounted in the upper fuselage. [ Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", p.262.]

Made from a bucket with a sloped floor, the receptacle had connections to the two extra fuel tanks, and at Spaatz's signal Lt. Salter opened the valve. Fuel flowed by gravity into the bucket at 75 gallons per minute and then into the tanks, where it was then pumped by hand into the wing tanks by Sgt. Hooe. [ Walter Boyne, "Question Mark", "AIR FORCE Magazine" March 2003] ] Food, mail, tools, spare parts and other supplies were also passed by rope in the same fashion.

ustaining flight

The five men aboard "Question Mark" underwent medical examinations before the flight, and their flight surgeon planned a special diet. However an electric stove to heat food was eliminated to save weight, and hot meals were sent aloft by the refuelers, including a turkey dinner on New Years Day prepared by a church in Van Nuys. [Maurer, "Aviation in then U.S. Army, 1919-1939, p. 264] The crew warded off boredom by reading, playing cards, sleeping in bunks mounted over the fuel tanks, and writing letters.

During the first night-time refueling, Spaatz was drenched with fuel when turbulence caused the hose to pull out of the receptacle. Fearing that chemical burns from the gasoline might force him to parachute from the airplane to seek medical treatment, Spaatz ordered Eaker to continue the flight regardless. However Spaatz shed all his clothing and was wiped off with oil-soaked rags. Although he directed at least one refueling without his clothing, replacements were soon delivered. [Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling", p.6.] Quesada was briefly overcome by the same accident but quickly revived. [Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939, p.262.] Spaatz experienced two other fuel spills without injury, using oil to wipe his skin and zinc oxide to protect his eyes. Fog, turbulence, and darkness altered the refueling schedule, shortening some contacts and delaying others. On six occasions the "Question mark" was forced away from its flight track to refuel, once over Oceanside and five times over El Centro. Maintaining contact formation became more difficult as the weight of the planes changed during transfer, especially since the refueling pilot could not observe the "Question Mark". Capt. Hoyt developed a system whereby Lt. Woodring tugged on a string tied to the pilot's arm if the C-1's speed was excessive. [Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", p. 263.] Early in the flight a window blew out of the C-2's cabin, but a replacement was eventually hauled up and installed by Sgt. Hooe.

End of the flight

Although the crew flew the plane at slow cruising speeds to nurse the engines, they eventually overstressed from extended use. The left engine began losing power as early as the third day. [Colin Bakse, "Airlift Tanker: History of U.S. Airlift and Tanker Forces", p. 53.] Sgt. Hooe, taping down his trouser cuffs, wearing a parachute, and connected by a lifeline, attempted to service them from the makeshift catwalks but the inflight lubricating systems only delayed and could not prevent engine wear. After the cylinders began missing, the "Question Mark" shortened its loops to remain within gliding distance of Van Nuys. Eaker was able to clear fouled spark plugs by completely opening the throttles.

On the afternoon of January 7, the left wing engine quit. Hooe went out on the catwalk to attempt repairs, immobilizing the windmilling propeller with a rubber hook. Eaker increased throttle on the remaining two engines to maintain flight while repairs were attempted, and they too began to strain. The plane lost altitude from 5,000 to 2,550 feet before Hooe was called back inside and the decision made to land. [Bakse, "Airlift Tanker: History of U.S. Airlift and Tanker Forces", p. 53.]

The "Question Mark" landed under power at Metropolitan Airport at 2:06 p.m., 150 hours, 40 minutes, and 14 seconds after takeoff. The left engine had seized because of a pushrod failure, and the others all suffered severe rocker arm wear. [Maurer, "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939, p. 264,]


Refueled 37 times and resupplied six others, with 12 of the 43 taking place at night, the "Question Mark" took on 5660 gallons of fuel, 245 gallons of oil, and supplies of food and water for its five-man crew. Hoyt and Refueling Airplane No. 1, flying from Rockwell and a backup airport at Imperial, California, resupplied "Question Mark" 27 times (ten at night), while Lt. Moon's crew at Van Nuys flew 16 sorties, two at night. [Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling", p.6.] In all, the flight broke existing world records for sustained flight (heavier-than-air), refueled flight, sustained flight (lighter-than-air), and distance. [ [,9171,737211,00.html "Time Magazine" Jan. 14, 1929] ]

All five crew members were decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross at a ceremony held at Bolling Field on January 29. The crews of the tankers, on the other hand, went unrecognized. Eventually all six received letters of commendation for their participation, but it was 47 years before their vital role in the operation was recognized with decorations. By then only Hoyt and Hopkins remained living, but both personally received Distinguished Flying Crosses on May 26, 1976. [Smith, "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling", p.8.]


The flight inspired a rash of projects to break the endurance record. In 1929 alone 40 flights were attempted, all by civilians, and nine succeeded in surpassing "Question Mark"'s record. At the end of 1929 the record stood at over 420 hours, established by Dale "Red" Jackson and Forest E. "Obie" O'Brine in the Curtiss Robin "Greater St. Louis." [ [ "Flyboys from Sparta held record" "Belleville News-Democrat" Sept. 8, 2007] ]

The Air Corps followed up the flight of the "Question Mark" with a mission to demonstrate its applicability in combat. On May 21, 1929, during annual maneuvers, a Keystone LB-7 piloted by Lt. Moon took off from Fairfield Air Depot in Dayton, Ohio, on a simulated mission to New York City via Washington, D.C. Plans were for the bomber to be refueled in flight several times, drop a flash bomb over New York harbor, then return to Dayton non-stop, again by way of Washington. Moon had as a member of his five-man crew 1st Lt. John Paul Richter, who had been a hose handler on the first-ever refueling aerial refueling mission on May 28, 1923. The C-1 tanker employed to refuel the LB-7 was flown by Capt. Hoyt and two enlisted men. While it performed a premature air refueling enroute from Dayton to Washington, icing forced the tanker to land in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where it got stuck in mud. After flying to New York, the LB-7 was forced to land at Bolling Field. [Smith, p. 7.] The next day the tanker joined the bomber and both flew to New York, where they made a public demonstration of air refueling and four dry runs. [Robert F. Adams (ed) (1997). "Defenders of Liberty: 2nd Bombardment Group/Wing 1918-1993", Turner Publishing, Paducah, Kentucky, ISBN 1563112388.]

Of the 15 Army aviators involved in the project, six later became general officers. Spaatz, Eaker and Quesada played important roles in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. Spaatz rose to commanding general of the Army Air Forces and became the first Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force. Eaker commanded the Eighth and Mediterranean Allied Air Forces. Quesada commanded the IX Tactical Air Command in France. Strickland, Hoyt and Hopkins all became brigadier generals in the United States Air Force, and the "Brigadier General Ross G. Hoyt Award" is issued annually for the best air refueling crew in the Air Force. Halverson, though he rose only to colonel, led the HAL-PRO ("Halverson Project") detachment, 12 B-24 Liberators that bombed the Ploieşti oil refineries in 1942, and was the first commander of the Tenth Air Force. Moon, a bomber pilot, became an influential member of the "Bomber Mafia" at the Air Corps Tactical School from 1933 to 1936, but died before the start of World War II.

The "Question Mark" was re-engined with 300-horsepower Wright R-975 engines in 1931, and redesignated as a "C-7". It served out its service life as the transport airplane for the 22nd Observation Squadron at Pope Field, North Carolina.


* [ Smith, Richard K. (1998). "Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling: Highlights 1923-1998"] Air Force History and Museums, Air University, Maxwell AFB.

* [,M1 Maurer Maurer (1987). "Aviation in the U.S. Army, 1919-1939", Office of Air Force History, Headquarters USAF, Washington, D.C.]

* [,M1 Colin Bakse (1995). "Airlift Tanker: History of U.S. Airlift and Tanker Forces", Turner Publishing, Paducah, Kentucky] ISBN 1-56311-125-X

External links

* [ photo of "Question Mark" post-flight]
* [ photo of Douglas C-1 in flight]
* [ Davis-Monthan C.B. Cosgrove Collection, 13th photo down is of message written to Major Spaatz on side of PW-9 fighter of 95th PS at Rockwell Field]
* [ National Museum of the USAF fact page: Atlantic-Fokker C-2A "Question Mark"]
* [ Walter J. Boyne, "Question Mark", "AIR FORCE Magazine" March 2003 Vol. 86 No. 3]
* [,9171,737211,00.html "Question mark", "Time Magazine" January 14, 1929 issue]
* [ USAF Historical Studies Office article about the mission]
* [ "Belleville News-Democrat" September 8, 2007, "Flyboys from Sparta held record", details both the Curtiss Robin and Stinson Hunter Brothers flights]

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