Flying The Dog
Secretary note: This story is from Gerry Haughey who was a pilot with the 512th Fighter Interceptor Squadron during Cold War years 1957 and 1958 stationed at Royal Air Force Station Bentwaters and United States Air Force Base Sembach West Germany. Gerry has put together a great story, recollections of his time in the Air Force. Gerry would like everyone to know that he was a pilot fresh out of Interceptor School when assigned to the 512th and felt he was the least among equals in that group of pilots. Most of his time with 512th was spent learning how to really
fly an interceptor as taught by experienced pilots, instructors of the 512 FIS.
Gerry received his commission in 1955 from the University of Pennsylvania AFROTC, but due to a backlog of slots for flight school he was not able to start flight school until Feb 1956. His primary flight school was at Spence, Moultrie GA in T-34's, T28's, basic flight training at Bryan TX in T-33's, advanced flight training in F-86s at Moody, Valdosta GA. Upon completion of school at Moody he was assigned to the 512th at Bentwaters. Gerry was on active duty for 2 & 1/2 years. In 1958 there was a reduction in forces, and Gerry had already been accepted at Penn Law School and came home to join the New Jersey Air National Guard flying F84-F's and later F-89's with Pennsylvania Air National Guard. After a few years it became difficult to continue flying Air National Guard jets and maintaining lawyer schedules; reluctantly Gerry resigned from the Air National Guard during his third year of law school. Gerry practiced law for 40 years in New Jersey and later in Pennsylvania before he retired. Gerry lives in New Jersey with his wife Patricia of 48 years along with two children and five grandchildren. Gerry and Patricia's other interests are traveling, sailing and support for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Flying the Dog, England and Germany, '57 & '58
Contributed by Gerry Haughey
1950's Fighter Pilots Drinking Sing, tune for
Bless them All
Don't give me an 86D, with overdrive and TV,
She'll loop turn and spin and she'll soon auger in,
Don't give me an 86D
Just give me operations, out on some lonely atoll,
For I am too young to die, I just want to go home
Well, the Dog was a great airplane, and these recollections are offered for whatever they're worth by one of the 512th FIS pilots from 1957 and 1958. With the understanding that they emanate from the point of view of, at that time, a comparatively green, thrilled and scared minor member of a truly great squadron flying air defense alerts along the Iron Curtain in Europe in an atmosphere of nuclear tension.
The Air Victory Museum Medford New Jersey is now home to F86-D #10110 which may have been an actual flight line aircraft of the 512th FIS. The museum is working on confirmation as the aircraft identification plate is missing, but in any event the museum's 86D bears 512th colors and markings. This story focuses first on flying the
Dog at an operational level at Bentwaters/Woodbridge RAF Stations in England and then Sembach AFB West Germany, and briefly at Wheelus AFB Tripoli Libya seen by a young pilot fresh from F86 interceptor training at Moody AFB Valdosta Georgia.
Secondly, with the thought that it might be possible that some readers of this story would be interested in recollections about Air Force and squadron life, there is also a section on traveling to and arriving at a working squadron, transitioning into its life. Another section mentions more or less nostalgic
snapshots of still vivid moments from several years of flying
hogs (F84F fighter bomber) in those Cold War years.
Overdrive and TV? Afterburner and Radar!
Overdrive: The F86D had held the speed record as the fastest transonic fighter aircraft in the world and to date is the only aircraft to hold that record twice. The "Dog" appellation resulted not from a lack of speed or maneuverability but from initial "D" in its name and from the fact the somewhat bulbous radar dome in its nose was seen by F-86 pilots as ungainly. Also through the early fifties, it kept killing pilots; a flaw in its afterburner would cause excess fuel to spew into the burner chamber immediately after takeoff.
The explosion would almost always precede or be simultaneous with the fire warning light and low altitude bailouts in those days were fatal. The flaw was fixed in '56 or '57 as I recall by something called "the trombone fix" which re-piped the fuel lines into a trombone shape. I don't know how that worked, but I never forgot the name. As a pure fighter the "Dog" probably fell slightly short of other F-86 models in maneuverability. There were skilled pilots who had tested them all and who would insist that the "Dog" was equal to all the other Sabers except the non radar models with advanced power plants.
The afterburner of the F86D was extremely powerful and burned a lot of JP4 fuel. Generally the afterburner was used frequently for takeoff but otherwise rarely used. If one were to leave the afterburner running and remain at low altitude the aircraft would run out fuel in about twenty minutes. Igniting the afterburner during takeoff at night would illuminate a whole lot of real estate. You couldn't hold the brakes in afterburner. When the throttle was pushed around the horn into afterburner position the airplane and the concrete runway it was sitting on would literally shake. The acceleration was nothing compared today's fighters but compared to a young pilots T-33 trainer experience in 1957 it was impressive as if the aircraft was fighting and shrieking to get off the runway.
Flying the "Dog" operationally was a far cry from flying it in the training regimen and the 512th flying indoctrination was a far cry from Moody's AFB interceptor training. Where the training command had concentrated on perfecting radar intercept techniques and mastery of instrument flying and weather approaches; the 512th flight leaders concentrated on air to air fighter tactics and exercises like precision formation aerobatics. They assumed that any fighter pilot worth his salt could stick his nose down into a funnel mask of a radar scope at 500 knots and maneuver his aircraft according to the radar system semi-automatic commands to toggle off rockets at an enemy's aircraft. Anybody could that. What the 512th taught us was how to fly.
High performance flying was the 512ths stock in trade. Formation flying and its formation takeoffs and landings, formation acrobatics and rat/racing were the routine, not the exception. In the skies over England there were no FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) spies and at altitude, no airliners and dog-fighting was an almost daily occurrence. The gauntlets were thrown down by one's own squadron pilots or by members of a sister squadron along the North Sea bases or by the RAF (Royal Air Force) fighter pilots. The RAF pilots having grown up in English weather thought nothing of coming out of nowhere when you were on final approach under low clouds, gear and flaps extended and go streaking across your windshield at high speed at 300 AGL (above ground level), then disappearing into the murk above.
Generally a dogfight would start at comparatively high altitude and circle down almost to the ground, sometimes with three or four aircraft involved. The planes chasing each other around and around and performing what were called "JC" maneuvers (terminology allegedly have been created by the fact pilots discovering a enemy aircraft "bogey" in on their tail invariably gasped "Jesus Christ") and hauled back and up on the stick into a tight climbing turn and then a tight descending turn, varying from high speed to stall speed.
Sometimes in England dogfights in jets had a peculiarly attractive aesthetic side. In moist English air under certain conditions the exhaust contrails which might in other climates have existed only in high altitudes would follow an aircraft nearly to the ground. In a dogfight among four, five or six fighters turning, pulling, rising and descending created a gargantuan basket weave of shining threads of contrails. Open and clear for a half mile across its center and towering miles high; from the stratosphere, down very nearly to the top of an English farm silo. Then you would break off and go home leaving the basket of contrails to dissipate into the surrounding mists.
It was a curious thing that because of the routine day by day English winter weather rottenness; the instrument flying challenges which seemed so serious in Georgia simply became more comfortable in England. Or maybe it was just experience. In any event the positive side of low ceilings day after day also meant those low stratus clouds had low tops as well. That meant among all of the population of Suffolk plodding through the dark depression of an English winter's short grey days only the fighter pilot knew the glory of radiant sunshine found above the clouds.
You would line up at takeoff position, perform your final checks, run the J- 47 engine up to 100%, look down the runway to where it literally disappeared in the fog, release the brakes and pop the throttle into afterburner and in few seconds you would lift off into the cloud bank. Then you would suddenly emerge into shining radiant sunlight under cobalt blue skies with crystal clear views to heaven itself. The next hour would be playtime before returning into the damp and brooding environment below.
First, we would have a briefing in the Quonset hut which served as an operations office, coffee shop and gossip center. Then out into the cold and damp, parachute strapped to your back. Climb up the side of the aircraft, settle the parachute in the seat and your helmet (with oxygen mask attached) up on the windshield, examine the airplanes forms, scan the cockpit, turn on and off a switch or two, then climb down, walk carefully around the aircraft and inspect everything you could find to inspect, climb back up into the cockpit and into the pilot's seat, with the crew chief leaning in to help you strap in and fire up the engine. Chute straps secured, seatbelts and shoulder harness secured, oxygen bottle inspected and attached, helmet pulled on your already aching head, communications connections secured. Pre-start routine: start the engine, power revving up via the auxiliary power unit to the required percentage, throttle around the "horn", START , ladder and crew chief gone, APU (auxiliary power unit) disconnected, electrical, instruments, radios on and running, radio check to the lead aircraft: (Few words: "dogpatch one", "dogpatch 2", dogpatch 2 go to channel one eight", "dogpatch two one eight", "tower this is dogpatch lead, flight of two for takeoff". "Dogpatch taxi bravo to runway three and hold". "Dogpatch one". Thumbs up for the crew chief to pull the wheel chocks, ejection safety seat pin removed and stowed, canopy down and locked.
Next, left glove pushing the throttle forward, nosewheel steering engaged, taxi out, set wing flaps, check, re-check instruments and switches, listen for clearance, and follow the lead to number one position then after clearance onto the runway. Taxi out behind lead aircraft and to his right side as he lines up just left of the runway centerline. Perform final checks and then concentrate on nothing in the world but the lead's helmet. He signals run-up. You run-up, hearing the engines roar towards crescendo. Stay clamped on the brakes as the aircraft begins to scream. Watch the lead's helmet. Watch, feel the aircraft shaking now. There it is the lead moves his head all the way back to the head rest; then jerks it forward. RELEASE BRAKES! Trundle slowly along the runway conscious of acceleration more by sound than sight, vibrations gone, and noise beginning to dissipate. Watch the lead's helmet. There is a curious calm in this, almost a karma-like trance of relaxed concentration. There is nothing you can do now except WATCH and follow. You sense a change in the aircrafts attitude: yes lead's nosewheel is lifting off the runway. Lead is airborne and almost simultaneously you are airborne. You allow lead to rise a few feet above level position so that the red light at the wingtip appears buried in lead's helmet. Gently, and with two fingers, you regulate your throttle and stick to line up with the wingtip light with lead's helmet. Gently you maneuver to hold position a few feet from lead's wing. Watch as you settle the aircraft's position for the gear up signal, reaching forward with your left hand to the gear lever. This has to be quick: your hand is off the throttle and you are entering the clouds. There it is: Gear up. You see lead's gear cycling up as you raise your lever and you fall back slightly as his aircraft "cleans up" ahead of yours. Throttle forward a little, then back, overtake and anticipate closing, throttle half way back through that little range. Again: settle into a position a few feet off the lead's wing. Wing flaps up the same way. By now there is no horizon: you are in the grey English weather. And there are no flight instruments for you except lead's aircraft. If it is upside down, then you are upside down. It is quiet now. You remember your first flight instructor's admonishment on your first flight of four aircraft: "Listen you morons, if I hit a mountain, then there better be four freaking holes".
Flash; you are through the clouds and squinting against the sun's blinding reflection on the lead's suddenly brilliant silver aircraft. Helmet visor down! You sense the lead's aircraft banking to the left as your throttle and stick hold your aircraft in its wingtip/helmet position, throttle forward a little since you are now on the outside of his turn travelling just a little farther per split second. Now you are looking down across the lead's F-86D aircraft at a brilliantly white and racing wooly rug of England's stratus cloud tops, and in the warm and comfortable sunshine of your little cockpit it is peaceful and well quiet.
Now if you never done it, think of this: distinct layers of clouds to the horizons, flight of two descend into the clear defined top of a cloud layer at mach .8, settle into the cloud-top up to the cockpit rail, clouds racing by at 900 feet per second, the wings and fuselage of your lead aircraft having disappeared into the surface of the clouds as it screams along. Except for the bubble where your friend resides alone and in peace, and the tail, the vertical stabilizer, slicing through the smoky skyscape and leaving behind a swirling, sometimes chaotic wake. Indeed, the F86-D aircraft cockpit had the most comfortable cockpit of the high performance aircraft I have flown, more comfortable by far (many years later) my Mooney! (Private airplane) The pilot's gloved left hand rested on a heavy throttle lever canted for comfort toward the center. His gloved right hand rests on the ledge of the thick control stick with its various buttons and levers: trim switch, wheel steering control, rocket firing trigger, right elbow resting on his right knee, left elbow on an armrest. The aircraft could be flown with very little movement of the forearm and hand. Cockpit visibility was excellent. Every instrument and virtually every switch, lever was within easy reach.
"And TV:" And of course the F86-D aircrafts mission was day/night interceptions using radar operated by the pilot who was simultaneously flying the aircraft. The radar scope sat forward of the stick with a long rubberized tube like an inverted funnel projecting up to the pilot. During an intercept you would bend your head down and forward to place your eyes at the mouth of the tube to stare into the scope, using the artificial horizon and other information presented on the radar screen, so as to choose the target aircraft while at closing speeds of 800 or even 900 knots. A perfect 90 degree intercept would involve a closing speed of 600 knots to pass the target within a couple hundred feet. In training at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia we had practiced instrument work day and night and night interceptions constantly. The memory of a low level night interception over the black pit of the Okeefenokee swamp isn't forgettable. The training was arduous and challenging, eventually we got fairly good at instrument and interception work.
Here's how that worked in a typical intercept practice mission: A flight of two or four F86-D aircraft would do practice runs using each other as targets or would take turns intercepting a T-33 target aircraft. In actual live rocket firing at Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya, the T-33 would tow a target behind it. The flight of F86-D interceptors would usually climb out in "trail" a mile or so apart with the #2 aircraft following in position by tracking the #1 aircraft on his radar. The ground radar controller whose job it was to set the interceptions up would be contacted and the aircraft would follow his guidance. The ground controller roughly guides the F86-D interceptors to position more or less abeam the target aircraft's track at a distance ranging over many miles, and then would turn the interceptors so as to be on an approximate 90 degree collision course with the target. The interceptor pilot would now be flying "head down" that is, entirely by reference to the instrumentation portrayed on the radar scope, (artificial horizon, speed information, etc). Searching for and then "locking on" to the target aircraft by maneuvering a highlighted "blip" of his aircraft over the target aircraft's "blip" in effect "clicking" the presentation.
After locking on to the target aircraft, the interception and its maneuvers would be guided by the onboard computer and it's radar presentation, adjusting for all of the variables and providing a steering "dot" and rate of closure circles on the scope, the idea being for the pilot to center that "dot" precisely (to bury the dot) by maneuvering the aircraft itself (using the artificial horizon displayed on the scope) sometimes, at least in my case, fairly violently. The system was designed to have the interceptor at the rocket firing point, closing at 90 degrees at a 600 knot or greater closure speed, passing only a few feet apart. At a timed interval of 20 seconds from firing the rockets, the display sharply collapsed to a tighter scale for (burying the dot) and at that point the maneuvering was pretty serious. When the intercept was performed properly the onboard computer directed the launch of the rockets (real or simulated) and the interceptor pilot would feel a distinct "bump" as his aircraft bounced through the exhaust of the target aircraft a few seconds after firing.
The system actually provided a fair amount of electronic shooting gallery fun, but it had its hazards, especially when improvident intercept angles decreased the angle of interception closer to head on, and increased the rate of closure. In those situations both the F86-D intercept pilot and the T-33 pilot had to be very cautious. Closure speeds could approach 800 or 900 knots at tight angles. In the daylight an imperfect intercept could be interesting and challenging. At night they were sometimes downright harrowing.
To appreciate what those closure rates meant, we would occasionally have the GCI (ground controlled intercept) people set two of our aircraft up on a headon collision course at slightly different altitudes with the pilots monitoring their altitude meticulously. As they approached closure, the lower of the two pilots would look into the wind screen to try and spot the oncoming aircraft. Wham! It would be gone overhead virtually without being seen! Now, THAT was impressive.
"Minimum Fuel": Getting down again
For me, two aspects of coming home in a "Dog" leap out of my memory: one was sheer beauty. Call me crazy, but I hold the firm opinion that one of the most beautiful sights a human could see on this planet was a flight of F86-D's entering a landing pattern, doing the "break" and most of all, gracefully gliding in turn around the base leg, graceful, seemingly silent, with wings swept back like a ballet genuflection to the gods of flight. Seen from the ground that picture draws the eye like a Rembrandt painting. Seen from an aircraft in the formation, it is hypnotic. Maybe there are other airplanes that look that good, but not to my eye.
Usually though, when those beautiful aircraft were gliding like gulls and turning into final approach, they were doing it with very little fuel left in their tanks. Again: the F86-D left in afterburner after takeoff and flown at low altitude would flame out in about twenty minutes; a couple hundred miles from home. Obviously "Dog" pilots were judicious about using the afterburner, but even an ordinary mission would begin to be fuel-challenged after about one hour and a quarter. So returning home there were two possible conditions: 1) being low on fuel and 2) being very low on fuel. That characteristic encouraged close attention to the landing process, including weather, winds, procedures and proper aircraft configuration. If you missed the landing approach you could go around once, with luck, maybe twice. By the third time the engine was sucking fumes, and of course the visibility was dropping or snow was falling and the operations officer was in your ear!
There are many ways to get down to the runway in weather. One of my personal favorites was GCA (ground controlled approach) The ILS/Glide Slope System which is so common today that nearly every significant airport has one, was not very common back then. To a great extent we relied on the calm, modulated voice of the GCA controller sitting in his van near the end of the runway: you are 1,200 feet, on glidescope on centerline. "You are drifting right of centerline, correct left, correct further left. You are correcting to centerline but descending below glidescope, reduce rate of descent. Reduce rate of descent. You are correcting to glidescope, approaching the outer marker, confirm landing gear down and locked. You are clear to land, winds 355 at 12 knots, visibility two miles".
At that point you would look up from your instruments and look at your windscreen and find a wonderful gift from the controller; runway lights! In almost any weather a GCA approach was, well, interesting. In bad weather, it was triumphant. There was a story told in those days about a young green pilot who became lost and disorientated at night, but was able to recover his situation, only to find he was running out fuel. Approach Control found him on radar and brought him into the GCA pattern. A calm vastly experienced GCA controller quietly guided onto then down the glideslope toward a foggy runway knowing the aircraft might flame out at any moment. As the pilot was nearing the outer marker exactly on glideslope, exactly on centerline, the controller's radar stopped working. The controller knew that there was no chance for another goaround. If he called for a missed approach the young pilot might not be able to climb to ejection altitude. So he continued in the same calm voice: you are approaching the outer marker on glidescope, on centerline. He carried his microphone out of the van into the foggy night and watched and listened as he intoned: you are on steady on glidescope, on centerline, crossing the outer marker. A few seconds later the F86 loomed out of the darkness and settled to a perfect landing.
That's how it was on an ordinary day, briefing, pre-flight, startup, taxi, takeoff, practice intercept, descent and landing. It would be impossible here to even attempt to amplify that experience in terms of an overall mission. To state it simply, there was a war on. The ADC (Air Defense Command) alert aircraft in England, West Germany and France were there to respond to the threat of Soviet airpower coming across the "Iron Curtain" from Eastern Europe. Scrambles in response to flights of Russian aircraft toward our borders were pretty regular and of course the nuclear shadow darkened perspectives on both sides of the borders. Our aircraft sitting on alert could be airborne in a few minutes, day or night, and the fear of screwing up on one of those scrambles far exceeded any apprehension related to flying in bad weather or darkness. A missed directive from ground control, a mis-identification or any other variety of potential screw-ups could result in an airliner full of dead people; or so very much worse, an igniting of a regional or global war.
But pilots are pilots and experienced pilots believed that on the occasions when a flight of our aircraft were scrambled toward a flight of Russian fighters coming from the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, both sides shared an optimism that these were bureaucratic exercises to build up flight time. Stories were told at that time of head-on scrambles in which each side, when approaching the border simultaneously turned south to fly on parallel courses dipping their wings at each other in a wordless salute.
Getting there, Living there
Looking back, I had lucked out in my assignment after graduating from Advanced Training (T-33's, class 57-L) and receiving my wings at Bryan AFB Texas in 1957 and was assigned to F86-D interceptors at Moody AFB Valdosta Georgia. It's hard to explain to modern generations, but flight school graduates always competed to avoid safer, multi-engine assignments. In those days, guys that were stuck with them went into mourning, even though the death rates among fighter pilots were higher. The chances of employment with the airlines were no better and flying the big aircraft with a co-pilot and engineer was far easier.
At Moody I fell in love with the F86 Saber and I love her still. On graduating from Fighter Interceptor school in September of 1957 I drew an assignment to Suffolk, England and the 512th, to report to the commanding officer Lt. Colonel John Ruettgers in early November.
That first Atlantic crossing was twelve hours or something close to that in a Military Air Transport Service C-54. The pilots allowed me to fly the damn thing into the sunrise and I sat behind them as they made the approach down through England's perpetual grey overcast, breaking out at around 400ft. AGL over a deep green landscape with its stone fenced farm fields and old grey churchyards and quiet wet villages. The weather in England was pretty foul when we landed near Birmingham and would remain pretty foul right through winter. With a bunch of new recruits in trail I took the train through smoke and fog from Birmingham into London, and from there after relaying the "kids" to an Air Force transportation specialist I departed on a northeasterly rail line to Ipswich, Suffolk where I took a cab to RAF Bentwaters in a dismal freezing rain. When I arrived at Bentwaters it was a cold dark, rainy night and no one knew I was coming.
The first thing that struck me about winter in England was its very grim environment, already dark at 4 pm; a drizzly and smoky mist hovered among a very few street lights whose light was the color of lemonade and everything was wet. I had to pick my way through the rain, B4 bags in hand along a narrow brick walkway to what served laughingly as a transient BOQ. It was a WWII Quonset hut with no heat and no hot water and a single bulb dangling from a wire. But the GI blankets were heavy and warm. A day or two later I was moved to more permanent quarters, a BOQ which consisted of a two man Quonset hut, again with no hot water, but with a luxurious coal burning pot bellied stove for a heating system.
During that winter we lost one pilot to the perils of winter flying in the UK and one pilot to carbon monoxide poisoning. A few weeks later my new roommate and I and four other bachelors would become tenants in a pretty elegant looking English country house on the North Sea, commuting, that is, racing each day in our VW Beetles and Morris Minors through Suffolk's tortuous back roads to RAF Woodbridge flight line.
Driving, that is racing, to and from "work" was deliciously challenging and generally the most dangerous mission of the day. There was a legend in Suffolk that the roads were laid out by the Ancient Roman Army using slave labor and that the laborers set the direction of the road by looking up at the Centurion and digging in the direction he happened to be facing. When the Centurion turned his back to the wind the road changed as well. That of course made the trips to base fun; we loved driving on the left side of the road with our left sided beetles, in direct challenge to the squadron's exec's regular injunctions to the effect "that any fighter pilot who busted his ass in a goddam car accident was a goddam disgrace and would rot in hell forever". Thus we daily raced through the risks of the technology of the third century to embrace the risks of the technology of the twentieth century.
The English Blokes: In the "Cold War" 1950's England was a backward country to a yank. She was, well, quaint. But beneath the quaintness WWII left her ragged, debilitated, listless and poor. She was foreign in all things but language and especially foreign in her lack of energy, of drive, of gusto. We young Americans were missionaries of the modern among a people so hamstrung by history and tradition and sheer economics (it was a socialist country) that they insisted that beer should be drank warm, homes should be cold, cars should be small and food pulverized before consumption.
My early Bentwaters Quonset hut is grafted into my memory. My new roommate himself a newly arrived pilot, was ensconced at the hut's only heat source, a potbellied stove, as I arrived. He was a CalTech astrophysicist who constantly sat around working out math problems on a yellow legal pad and later would be among NASA's first group of Scientist Astronauts, (with his picture on the cover of Time magazine) but who would resign in protest from that program by reason as I recall, of its lack of real scientific focus. He was a good friend, a good pilot, and a very smart guy. He had already received a Master's from CalTech in Astrophysics at age 21 and never received a grade less than A. Much later he would become a professor at Rice University. After we were roommates for a few months I asked him what were those math calculations he was constantly scribbling, and why the hell he did not just solve them and be done with it. With a rather superior shrug and a patronizing glance he explained that the problems he worked on were known to be unsolvable and that's why he worked on them. (Go figure).
It is worth mentioning that given his imposing brainpower, I cherish a memory and a lesson learned from my genius roommate; about pilots and sheer intelligence. I was standing outside the squadron operations hut one day when I saw an F-86D coming down for final approach with the gear-up at five feet AGL. Someone had the presence of mind to grab a mike and shout "go around, go around" and at about 5 feet AGL the aircraft did just that, very nearly stalling out in the process, then climbed up into the pattern to come around and land, this time with the landing gear down. A few minutes later I saw my sheepish genius roommate climb out of the aircraft proving the old adage that there are two kinds of pilots, those that have landed with their gear up and those who will.
It wasn't until we got to the flight line and reported to the C.O. that my roommate and I became aware that the 512th had recently been awarded the 1957 Hughes Achievement Award as the best Fighter Interceptor Squadron in the U.S. Air Force. Many of the pilots we would be flying with were highly experienced combat veterans from Korea and even WWII. The 512th squadron commander had flown P47's in late WWII. My flight leader (with whom later I would experience a flame-out with over the North Sea in a T-33 and making a dead stick landing) had been shot out of two F84's in Korea. One of our flight leaders, a gentle and modest man with keen interest in literature and classical music, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroic action in Korea and was the smoothest lead I ever flew formation with.
Some songs and more Snapshots
There was an odd let down feeling in being a new boy, after the exaltation and hubris of graduating from Moody AFB -as in theory- a fully fledged pilot, of being very humble and very awed in these surroundings, a feeling which was considerably exacerbated by daily seeing the standard sign, otherwise a cliche mounted above the operations office door. (Through these portals pass the finest fighter pilots in the world), which happened in this instance to be intimidatingly true. In fact our graduate school learning began on the flight line in England.
If the flight line checkouts were daunting and serious, the social indoctrination was quite the opposite. An early and happy aspect of a new pilot's arrival in a fighter squadron in those days was the welcoming warmth and wild enthusiasm found every weekend and even some weekdays in the Officers Club Bar, with its particular laughing scorn for military formality and especially for military bureaucracy. Fighter pilots of that time operated on a steady diet of cavalier humor, JP-4 fumes, beer, and 100% oxygen for hangovers, more cavalier humor, and more beer. The risks and fears were real, and in that light the spit and polish aspects of military life were downright silly, and the humor and camaraderie reflected those realities. One song- "Up at Wing Headquarters they strut and shout, speaking of things they know nothing about..." can also be applied broadly in civilian life.
At the time flying fighters was a dangerous business with an index of safety far below what we have come to expect in high performance aviation today. Previous wars spawned this culture of songs, slogans and cliches, echoed in that constant interplay between laughter, irony, and apprehension inherited from the fighter squadrons of WWII and Korea. Thus: "Did he crash and die"? No. He "bought the farm".
And the songs:
"Distinguished Flying Crosses do not compensate for losses, Buster"
"I wanted wings till I got the goddam things,
Now I don't want them anymore"
"If it's one thing you can't laugh off,
It's when they blow your tailpipe half-off,
And I've had a bellyful of war!"
As noted in the introduction to this piece, one of the favorite pilot's songs; was a song sung to the tune of old WWII "Bless them all", which amounted to a drivers review of various fighters then in the arsenal, for example:
"Don't give me an F84, that overweight ground loving whore,
She'll loop turn and spin and she'll soon auger in,
Don't give me an F84." And the chorus:
"Just give me operations out on some lonely atoll,
For I am too young to die, I just want to go home"
And of course, among us "Dog" pilots the favorite verse to that song was:
"Don't give me an 86D with overdrive and tv,
Taking off like a fool, down to minimum fuel
Don't give me an 86D
And there were a hundred other songs, almost universal in there theme of satirizing the bravado and baloney of the fighter pilot image (including our silk neck scarves), and vividly expressing the gallows humor of being alone and vulnerable in a wild beast in a wild sky, sometimes scared, sometimes triumphant and sometimes dead.
Great songs and great and grim funny jokes: It would be easy but specious to describe that humor as laughing at danger. It might be more accurate to describe it as laughter at a shared but otherwise silent acknowledgement of intimate and very direct daily exposure to monumental and sometimes fatal and unpredictable forces, laughter not at danger but at the limitations of one's own humanity and the imperative constant need to conquer those limitations and the fears that attended them.
- For whatever they are worth, here are few verbal snapshots from those fighter pilot years as they loom in one minor participant's memory of comparatively small involvement in large events.
- Flaming out over the North Sea in a T-33, gliding inland (you would lose the use of your hands in sixty seconds if you bailed out into the North Sea in winter) and declaring an emergency, notifying the nearest airbase tower and a cooly dead-sticking to a perfect landing. But: No fire truck No Ambulance. No chaplain, doctors or base commander! No tow truck for a half hour. We had called the wrong airfield! They were all waiting at another airfield runway.
- Attending a return party as a date of the British Consul's daughter at a lavish, walled and well guarded mansion in a densely populated area of Tripoli Libya, and walking out on a third floor balcony, seeing hundreds, maybe thousands of Libyans sitting on the roof tops of the tenements surrounding the party, staring in utter silence at, I supposed, the infidels.
- Waiting in the dark and cold at the flight-line for the return of a lost pilot who would never return.
- Night flying a T-33 with my immediate boss and flight commander in the backseat, when he took the controls to demonstrate not only how well the T-33 could spin (which was red-lined against spins), but how pretty the lights of the city below looked while we were spinning. Great flying lesson: learning night spin recoveries in a red-lined jet!
- Security briefings in a Quonset hut at a remote corner of the base, located in a compound having not one but two barbed wire topped chain link fences around it into which you were admitted only by personal recognition, where the weirdest looking nerds in the world would show us photos of Russian aircraft taken only a day or two previously in the Caucuses.
- Barely whispered mention among our pilots that at an airbase in Turkey which we our people occasionally visited, there was a strange looking aircraft with a T- 33 fuselage and long, long wings, and no markings, obviously designed to fly very high, very slow for long periods of time. Later the world would know it as the U2.
- Crowds of Brits (or as we called them "blokes") protesting our presence in England, picketing the airbase gates with placards that sometime threatened violence. The cold hostile reception at local pubs when we first arrived in our little village-of-residence by the North Sea, soon to be replaced by joyful camaraderie and friendship when the locals realized (1) that we were interceptor pilots, - it wasn't that long after the Battle of Britain, and (2) that they could beat us at darts.
- Being chewed out by an Operations Officer (who was flying as #2 to my Lead in a formation of F84's) for failing to deploy my aircraft drag chute while landing (successfully) on an alternate short runway, due to a crash on the long runway. Then rejecting my defense that I held back from using the drag chute because he was landing so close behind me!
- Landing into a breaking and gusty thunderstorm in an F84F on low fuel, bouncing through the down blasts, having to kick the rudder one way, then the other, and rounding out for touchdown as the gust swarmed from side to side, then, after touchdown, sliding down the runway at a 30 degree angle for about a thousand feet at a couple hundred miles per hour, then finding the aircraft abruptly straightening out and decelerating comfortably, as if by its own decision.
- During a 1956 cross-country from Texas to New jersey, calling from Columbus Ohio to my brother in New Jersey (who lived 20 miles from McGuire AFT) to tell him to jump in the car and meet me at McGuire. He asked "How soon should I leave"? I replied, "now". Jet flying was comparatively new then and he couldn't believe my instructions. I beat him to McGuire.
- Roaring over the Libyan desert at 100 feet above the ground, touring the ancient Roman ruins and viewing the nomad way of life of families with their livestock living literally in holes in the ground, only a half hour from our supersonic airbase.
- Trying to tease the awful F-89 out of a vertical dive during a maximum speed drill over Cape Cod, hitting the speed brake switch and getting no response, gradually pulling out at 14,000 feet after the dive from 45,000 feet and being told later that the speed brakes sometimes don't work at "excessive speeds." (Huh?)
- After a nice summer day's cross-country from Cape Cod to Philadelphia in a T- 33 with me in the front seat as PIC "pilot in command" and my buddy in the back seat, leveling off 1500 feet over farmland south of Millville, heading for Philadelphia. My buddy in the back took the controls while I was, well, took a little nap. I was awakened by a sudden shout: "HEY WAKE UP!" I awoke in an inverted aircraft in the down side of an Immelman turn, and through the windscreen I was looking at a herd of cows! Some smooth flying!
- Practicing F-84 nuclear weapons deliveries (LABS) by hurtling down the Chesapeake Bay (by Tangier island) at 100 or 200 feet above the water at 500 knots, staring ahead to try and see the target line indicators (the size of billboards) before shooting past them, then pulling up into a vertical climb, releasing the "bomb" straight up and then pulling back at 7000 feet into an inverted dive, rolling over and pressing for max speed to get the hell out of the area, craning your neck to see a splash form the bomb hitting the water.
- One of my roommates crashing on the runway at night, the aircraft's landing gear sheared off, its remaining fuel in flames that lit up the German sky as the aircraft skidded on its exploding wing tanks, finally coming to a stop a couple thousand feet from impact, the pilot climbing out over the windscreen to avoid the fire and running safely into the darkness. At the debriefing later that night he was asked for recommendations to other pilots to avoid a similar accident; his comment; "Don't land short".
- Attending escape and Evasion school in the mountains of southern Germany, which was so serious that it caused more casualties in one season than all of our European flying accidents put together! Freezing cold and alone in remote mountains with no survival gear, no food, no help, no lights, no compass. No fun. Infantry stuff!
- Last flight in Germany: On a glorious summer evening in southern Germany with "towering cumulus clouds in all quadrants", me flying #4 slot in a flight of four F-86-D's, all of us in trail, as we climbed between the rising silvery mountains of the cumulus cloud formations, screamingly bright in the summer sunset against a vivid blue sky, and cavorting down and up and around and between their brilliant ever expanding, ever ascending columns, until we reached the top of the highest tower of them all, then, still in trail, rolling inverted, one after the other, over its shining pillowy summit, each of us upside down, craning his neck to look up, up through the canopy (that is down, down, down) squinting into the brilliance and shadows of its sharp deep valleys, to where far, far, miles below the cities and towns and highways, the twinkling evening lights of mortals could be seen, the mechanics, dancers, painters, nuns, accountants, lawyers, dentists, trundling along on their little autobahns, which were now emerging into view from the dark base of our ethereal cliffs, their heights now burnished gold and silver in the sunset that surrounded us. Now diving down, down, down, still all in trail, out of the sunlight and into the nights black canyon as lighting flashed in the distance as much to celebrate as to threaten our invasion of its sky, than leveling off in the restful darkness, instrument lights now glowing red in the cockpits quiet warmth, relaxed in our positions in our flight of four, sharing in radio silence the transcendent and effable bliss of having this day seen and known wonders.
- A slight disadvantage to the miracle of flight is that after experiencing such things in one's youth, everything that follows can seem comparatively trivial. Our fellow pilot, John Gillespie Magee, Jr never really got much literary credit for his poem "High Flight". But Magee knew what the critics would never know when he spoke of "dancing the skies on laughter silver wings", of then "Tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds". He knew that these are the heavens that men risk their lives to reach for before some descend into getting and spending, to counting out their lives in time clocks and pay stubs and billable hours and balance sheets and coffee spoons.
At the end of a lifetime, looking back, an old pilot knows we did those things for the blast of their power and the thrill of their peril, but, far more, for the private, silent, personal beauty of their visions, or as Magee's poem put it for having:
"Done a hundred things you have not dreamed of,
Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence,
chasing the shouting wind along.
Soaring up, up, the long, delirious burning blue,
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew"
Epilogue and Background Notes:
The late Steve Snyder, my good friend and founder of the Air Victory Museum asked me several years ago, (after the museum had acquired its F86-D) to try and write this description of flying that aircraft with the 512th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in England and West Germany in the late 1950's. At first I declined, insisting then (as I insist now) that my sole qualification for submitting a report like that was that I was there for only a year or so. Later I agreed at least to try to provide these notes, but with the understanding that I would let the reader know "up front" that the notes describe the experiences of a very minor player. I hope that nonetheless they may be useful to anyone interested in that time and that mission.
I was one of the newest of the pilots in the 512th in 57-58 and after ten months in the squadron and just reaching full qualification for independently standing day/night alerts; when an Air Force reduction in force resulted in my leaving active service and returning stateside (later to fly F-84F Thunderchief fighter/Bombers with the New Jersey Air National Guard while in graduate school and for a few months, the F89 with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard). All in all, I probably logged only a few hundred hours in the F86-D "Dog", counting both the training phase at Moody AFT in Georgia and my time with the 512th. In my opinion, most of the other pilots of the 512th of that time would be better qualified than I to speak about the squadron's mission, its personnel, its accomplishments, and indeed flying the aircraft.
But again, I was there and more than 40 years later, by sheer chance I happened to have been here at the South Jersey Regional Airport (and still flying) when the Museum acquired an F86-D for its collection. At Steve's request, then, I offer this for whatever it's worth as a glimpse into flightline life in Europe in the late 50's from the point of view, not of a "hotshot" but a very ordinary and comparatively inexperienced young pilot in an extraordinary environment. (The Museum may choose to retain these notes with the F86-D until a better account comes along, or simply to discard them in favor of James Salter's superb novel, Cassandra, which will be submitted with these notes.)
But if my sole qualification for commenting on those days is just having been there, I rush to add that the joy of flying fighters for the USAF and the NJANG and PANG was the most memorable experience of my time on this planet and for me, it was transcendentally and magically and deliciously challenging and indescribably beautiful. Skill-wise, as time passed I was able to get by reasonably well in the Saber aircraft series, going on later to fly the F-84F Thunderstreak fighter bomber with NJANG in a squadron whose pilots then included WWII and Korean veterans of staggering experience and skill. I learned a lot from the 512th pilots and from the NJANG pilots as well, and that learning served me well, until the year when 46 years after "solo", I have "hung flying up".
In those experiences I was a lucky young man to be there, and I knew it, privileged to live and walk and work among elite aviators who could make aircraft sing and dance to dangerous and hypnotic tunes at quite literally the very edges of existence. If I see myself as having been a journeyman among experts, like a high school saxophonist in a symphony orchestra, well, I was glad to get through music without too many sour notes! I saw enough in those fighter pilot days to be able to know the real professionals from the journeymen. If I was only a journeyman, well at least I had a front seat at the concert.
As I write this in February 2003, yesterdays New York Times contains an article by Buzz Aldrin lamenting last Saturdays loss of the seven crew members of Columbia shuttle, but urging that the space program continue Aldrin describes the physiology of risk takers in aviation and space adventures, emplacing the fighters pilot accommodation, acceptance of great risks for indescribable rewards, rewards unknown to those that never venture forth. And I recall watching on TV 1969's moon landing as it was being accomplished by a trio of fighter pilots. A relative sitting with me saw that I had tears in my eyes as the successful landing was completed and asked why I was so deeply affected by the landing, given the fact that they had a long way to go to return safely back to earth, instinctively I responded: "Don't you see? To them that doesn't matter all that much". I am not sure whether he understood.
(The following paragraphs were based on 2000 information, which at the time was believed to be correct. Other information/facts, were uncovered by Pete Hutting (Pete was the crew chief for the Colonel's F86-D #110) show that #110 ended up in the Yugoslavian Air Force as part a Military Assistance aid package in 1961. The F86-D at the Air Victory Museum is actually a F86-D/L #53-635. The next news letter will have the results of Pete's research of #10110. Regardless that the F-86D/L at the museum is not #110, it remains a fitting tribute to the 87th/512th squadron; its mission, pilots, operations and maintenance personnel.)
An F-86D bearing tail number 10110 is now housed in the Air Victory Museum. During my service in England and West Germany in 57 and 58; the aircraft bearing that tail number was the commanding officer's aircraft, kept as bright and shiny silver as a vintage car at a rally, the focal point of the flight line. It was flown once and a while by pilots other than the C.O., and if memory serves I actually got to fly it at least once or twice, if only to ferry it over to another base for some special maintenance. Forty years later, apparently by sheer coincidence, an aircraft bearing tail number #10110 again came to wear the colors of the 512th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. I had suggested to Steve Snyder that since my old squadron, the 512th F.I.S. had been quite distinguished as an air defense squadron (no thanks to me), it would be appropriate to use its insignia/colors on the museum's "dog". I reminded Steve that the 512th had been awarded the Hughes trophy in 1957 for being the best Air Defense Squadron in the Air Force and recipient of two Outstanding Unit Awards,(again: no thanks to me). Authenticity of the insignia, colors would be no problem. Steve asked me to dig into my memorabilia for old photos, and of course I rushed to do so, and delivered them to Steve who arranged to have the insignia and squadron colors from the photograph precisely replicated on the aircraft, with what was its original tail number.
I undertook some further research. While visiting England, I returned to our old flight lines at Bentwaters and Woodbridge Air Force bases, and discussed the project with the base Wing Historian and passed his name along to Steve with some additional information. Steve also did additional research through that historian and Air Force records and he concluded that #10110 had indeed been a 512th Aircraft in 57 and 58 and beyond. Thus, this Museum aircraft, bearing in the year 2000 the colors of the old 512th F.I.S., had in fact been one of the 512th aircraft, bearing those same colors more than 40 years before. The photos we were able to find confirmed the history of #10110 and presence in the squadron at that time. Those papers and photos will be submitted with this report.
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