Belly Tank Spotter’s Guide – Part 1

Wonderful Chart Produced by Sargent Fletcher Documenting Aircraft That Used Wing Tanks - by Decade. Thanks to the Cobham (Sargent Fletcher) Organization for Sharing This Document With Us

Hi Gang..

When I started researching belly tanks, I was confused by all of the variations of tanks I started to see.  Some were new, some were old, some were large, some were thin, some were steel, others aluminum, and even tanks made of a paper composite material too!  Too much variety to make sense of easily.  

To make matters more confusing, many tanks that looked different were often attributed to a single aircraft type, and this was most frequently the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.    For example, someone might say, “that’s a drop tank from a P-38 Lightning.”  I wish it would have been just that easy.  I looked for good sources of information, and I found three that I’d like to share:

  • The folks at Sargent Fletcher (now Cobham) who started making aircraft fuel tanks back in the 1940’s
  • Good friend Bob Falcon who worked for Fletcher Aviation in the 1960’s and was working with some of the best car guys around in the 1950’s and beyond. 
  • And Harold Pace – noted author and automotive historian who most recently authored an article about the history of the first belly tank built for racing on the dry lakes by Bill Burke (1946)

I tapped Harold’s expertise first in getting perspective on what he had learned.  Let’s begin there.

Tank Types:  By Harold Pace

The fuel tanks for aircraft have been called by various names over the years.  You’ll hear names such as “drop tanks”, “wing tanks”, “belly tanks”, “fuel tanks”, and others too.  In preparation for an article for Rodder’s Journal in 2010, Harold noted the following:

Auxiliary tanks were made for a wide variety of aircraft to extend their range during WWII. The best-known use of drop tanks was in the Yamamato interception where P-38s equipped with a combination of 310-and 165-gallon tanks flew a 430-mile mission to shoot down the famous Japanese admiral.  There were a number of tank sizes and two different types:

Preparing a Wing Tank on an Aircraft in World War II

  • Drop Tanks:  Around 75 to 200 gallon capacity. These were carried under the fuselage or on the wings of fighters to extend their range on combat sorties.  When enemy aircraft were engaged, the empty tanks would be dropped off. A 165-gallon drop tank, probably sourced from a P51, was used in the first Burke tank in 1946.
  • Transfer Tanks: Larger tanks (200 to 300 gallons) were usually employed to ferry aircraft to distant airfields and were not designed to be dropped, although in an emergency they could be. They would be removed after arrival and reused to ferry another aircraft.
  • Others:By the end of WWII many drop tanks were being made of laminated paper so that the discarded tanks couldn’t be recycled by the enemy. The postwar F86 jet used aluminum tanks of 100-to-206.5-gallon capacity. Many other military aircraft used aluminum and steel tanks, and hundreds ended up on the surplus market in the 1950s and ‘60s. This explains the myriad variations in tank configuration on lakesters. Although other aircraft also used 310-gallon tanks (often rounded off to “300 gallon tanks”), they became known as “P-38 tanks”.

The classification reviewed by Harold Pace above, is a useful starting point in understanding “tank terminology”.   Let’s turn to one of the main manufactures of these tanks for the U.S. government – Sargent Fletcher.

Sargent Fletcher (now Cobham)

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning Introduced in 1941

Sargent Fletcher has been the primary company producing aircraft wing tanks since the 1940’s.  Here’s what “Hoovers” business resource had to say about the company’s history:

“This company makes aerial refueling systems, external fuel tanks, special purpose pods (pods carrying lasers, data gathering equipment, fuel, cargo, lights, etc.), pylons, and pneumatic ejectors. Since its inception in 1940, the company has produced more than 2,000 aerial refueling systems and 1 million external fuel tanks for the military forces of many countries. Customers include the US and UK military, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems. Sargent Fletcher markets its business under the Cobham Mission Systems nameplate”
Over 1 million of anything is impressive – but having built more than 1 million tanks, there should be many more belly tank lakesters on the dry lakes by now.  I can envision a speed event of just belly tanks….   Perhaps a 100 tanks on the salt at once……Never mind…..  I was “wandering”…

When I contacted Sargent Fletcher (now Cobham) recently, they were happy to help and shared several pieces of documentation that make illustration of the aircraft and associated tanks easier to understand.  One of the pieces of reference material was titled “External Fuel Tank Production History”.  A great document showcasing aircraft that they had developed wing tanks for from the 1940’s thru the 1990’s.  I’ve included this in the story for reference purposes, and hope you can make out the detail as you click on the picture below and shown in this story. 

The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt Introduced in 1942

Today, I’ll review the first four planes on this diagram which are propeller driven planes.  These planes are all from the 1940’s.  In a future story, I’ll review the early jets that carried wing tanks too.  All of these planes could have carried external fuel tanks as needed, and the propeller planes could hold various types of tanks as discussed by Harold Pace above.

Lockheed P-38 “Lightning” (Introduced 1941)

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was a World War II American fighter aircraft built by Lockheed. Developed to a United States Army Air Corps requirement, the P-38 had distinctive twin booms and a single, central nacelle containing the cockpit and armament. 

Named “fork-tailed devil” by the Luftwaffe and “two planes, one pilot” by the Japanese, this unique aircraft was used in a number of different roles including dive bombing, level bombing, ground strafing, photo reconnaissance missions, and extensively as a long-range escort fighter when equipped with drop tanks under its wings.  The P-38 was the only American fighter aircraft in production throughout American involvement in the war, from Pearl Harbor to Victory over Japan Day.

Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” (Introduced 1942)

The North American P51 Mustang, Introduced in 1942

Republic Aviation’s P-47 Thunderbolt, also known as the “Jug,” was the largest, heaviest, and most expensive fighter aircraft in history to be powered by a single reciprocating engine. It was one of the main United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) fighters of World War II, and served with other Allied air forces. The P-47 was effective in air combat but proved especially adept at ground attack. It had eight .50-caliber machine guns, four per wing. When fully loaded the P-47 could weigh up to eight tons.

North American P-51 “Mustang” (Introduced 1942)

The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang was an American long-range single-seat World War II fighter aircraft. Designed and built in just 117 days, the Mustang first flew in Royal Air Force (RAF) service as a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft before conversion to a bomber escort, employed in raids over Germany, helping ensure Allied air superiority from early 1944.

The P-51 was in service with Allied air forces in Europe and also saw limited service against the Japanese in the Pacific War. At the start of Korean War the Mustang was the United Nations’ main fighter but the role was quickly shouldered by jet fighters, including the F-86, after which the Mustang became a specialized ground-attack fighter-bomber. In spite of being superseded by jet fighters the Mustang remained in service with some air forces until the early 1980s.

The Northrop P-61 Black Widow, Introduced in 1944

Northrop P-61 “Black Widow” (Introduced 1944)

The Northrop P-61 Black Widow was the first operational U.S. military aircraft designed specifically for night interception of aircraft, and was the first aircraft specifically designed to use radar. It was an all-metal, twin-engine, twin-boom design developed during World War II. The first test flight was made on 26 May 1942, with the first production aircraft rolling off the assembly line in October 1943. The last aircraft was retired from government service in 1954.

Bob Falcon’s Comments:

When Bob Falcon was reviewing this story for me, he noted the following detail about the four planes above:

Geoff…Did you notice that three of the four aircraft you cited in your piece were all manufactured within thirty miles of each other?  The P-38 was built at Lockheed Burbank, the P-51 came from North American in Inglewood and the Black Widow was from Northrop in Hawthorne.  The Jug was a product of Long Island.  Bob (Falcon)

Bob’s thoughts on the airplanes, their history, and the types of tanks they used has helped me gain a greater appreciation of the times when the tanks were built for running on the dry lakes. .  I think you’ll enjoy Bob’s upcoming thoughts about these issues in a future story.


Thanks again to the folks at Cobham for making their materials available to us to share, and to Harold Pace for his review of the major types of aircraft tanks.  In the near future, I’ll review additional information concerning the “Belly Tank Spotter’s Guide” from Bob Falcon who has recently shared his memories and understanding of how these tanks were built “back in the day”.

Until then, as Burke said about the first belly tank on the dry lakes….

Shake….Rattle…..and Go!!!


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About Geoffrey Hacker

Geoff Hacker is an automotive historian and is researching the history of belly tanks and streamliners from the early postwar era with his good friend Rick D'Louhy. Both are also working on a book called "Forgotten Fiberglass" about the history of early fiberglass sports cars in America ( Read more about Geoff's background on the "About Us" link of the Forgotten Fiberglass website. He can be reached at


Belly Tank Spotter’s Guide – Part 1 — 3 Comments

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