July-August, 2009 Feature
My F-86H Days
by Jim "Skinny" McLennan
The following article is presented through
the kind permission of the Sabre Pilots Association and Larry Davis,
Editor of their excellent publication Classic Sabre Jets.
Visit their website at:
F-86H of the 138th FIS, Syracuse Air National Guard, "The Boys From Syracuse"
Photo: NYAviator Collection
The Late Fifties
After pilot training and prior to my Sabre experience, I flew
straight-winged Hogs (F-84Gs) at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and
then checked out in F-94As upon my return to the Syracuse, New York
Air National Guard in 1956.
transitioned to the F-86H Sabre sometime in `58. A RAFSOB, on loan
from the regular establishment, checked us out. He immediately
impressed us by landing gear-up while demonstrating a tight "tiger"
those days, Air Guard flying consisted of mainly getting 100+ hours
per pilot each year. We had to call the squadron at least two hours
prior to take off so they could notify maintenance to get a bird
ready. Most sorties consisted of solo hunting for other unsuspecting
fighters, bombers, transports, or even airliners! Believe it or not,
I actually got into a scissors maneuver once with a Mohawk BAC 111!
The Sabre was the best fighter I ever flew. It had no restrictions
on speed, altitude, attitude or visibility. The office was high and
well forward of the wing, which offered excellent visibility around
the clock. More than once I experienced a Sabre sliding backwards
out of a hassle with smoke pouring out both ends! Recovery was easy;
release back pressure, get the nose down, build up speed, and pull
straight up and get back into the fight. The Sabre "H" was
restricted to 7.33 positive G's clean, or 6 with external stores,
but it could take a lot more. Marvin T. Glen, the originator and
first winner of a trophy in his name, put 14 g's once on one bird
and it did not come unglued. The award was a duck whose head went up
its rectum! Many others were over-G'd by aggressive pilots, but
after a visual inspection by maintenance, few had any damage.
"H", like all Sabres, would go supersonic, but only when rapidly
descending, and then after a climb to above 40,000 feet, throttle to
max, and split-s to straight down. The needle would cross Mach one
by .01. If we were not supersonic by 30,000 feet, forget it! Also,
we experienced considerable wing roll, but we could easily correct
it with opposite stick. The ailerons and elevators were boosted and
very sensitive. Most pilots had to get used to this before they
stopped wobbling all over the sky!
Cross-Country In F-86Hs With"Garbage Belly" ("GB") Miller Leading
From Syracuse we
launched as a flight of two for Willie Field near Phoenix Arizona
with a refueling stop at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. Upon
arrival at Scott, we were informed the field was closed to jet
traffic due to repairs on the long runway. "GB" informed the tower
we would take the short runway and land anyway.
did as "GB" said we would. In base Ops, we ran into our second
obstacle, the Airdome Officer, who informed us we were going nowhere
as the base was closed for jet traffic. "GB" said, "We're in the
Guard, but you can watch us take off". The AO did! Our climb to
41,000 feet, our best cross-country cruise altirude, took about 20
minutes. At this altitude we indicated 240 knots which gave us 470
knots true airspeed.
With 200 gallon
external tanks, which we always carried, our maximum range in the
F-86H was 1,000 miles, but we seldom planned for more than 800,
depending upon the winds. The time enroute was usually an hour and
thirty minutes to two hours. For anything more we really started to
sweat the fuel. We navigated between radio beacons using ADF which
was less than reliable, especially if thunderstorms were about. At
each fix we gave a radio position report to that facility and
estimated our arrival at the next fix. It was an done in our heads.
We had no calculators, computers, or even an autopilot in the "H",
so we used paper and pencil. In'61 it got a lot easier. We had TACAN
installed, which was more reliable, and it not only gave us our
heading but also our distance to or from a station.
So there we were, at
41,000 feet above an overcast with about 30 minutes of fuel left,
when "GB" announced to Oklahoma City radio that, "We don't have
enough gas to get to Willie." He took their suggestion and headed
for Altus Air Force Base, not far away. We switched our frequency to
Altus approach. They informed us that their weather was bad, they
were recovering numerous B-47s, and that we would have to hold for
an hour before they could clear us for the approach. "GB" said, "No
Problem!" Now I was really confused! How could we hold for an hour
with less than 30 minutes of gas? So when we hit the fix, "GB"
announced to Approach that we would cancel IFR and let down VFR
instead. We rolled upside down, split-s'ed, changed to the tower
frequency, plunged straight into the soup for our VFR descent, and
with the altimeter unwinding at breakneck speed, I felt my g-suit
inflating! As "GB" started his pullout, I hung on for dear life.
Rain pelted my canopy as we broke out at 500 feet moving at over 575
knots. One mile from the end of the active runway, "GB" called, "Two
Sabres on the break for full stop landings!" That night at the O
Club bar, "GB" told WII Mustang stories until they closed. You know,
I believed all of them!
Training In The F-86H
Air-to-air gunnery was by far the most challenging of all fighter
pilot sports, and it always started the same way. An F-86H with the
call sign "Tugboat" would race down the runway with 3,000 feet of
cable and a large rag attached at the end, and then pull sharply
into a steep climb to get the target airborne before it ripped off.
The shooters, four other Sabres, would follow. No one wanted towing
duties as the only way for the Tugboat to terminate its mission was
to rip the flag off. If this happened, the actions of the tow pilot
were assumed to have caused the loss of the target and the end of an
enjoyable mission for the shooters. When this occurred, often the
tow pilot would be threatened with, "If you lose another flag, you
will be the target!"
Tugboat, however, usually got the rag to the restricted area where
the fun began. The shooters would race by the tug on the spacer pass
and start the intricate pattern of climbing to the perch (line
abreast and above the tow ship), and then diving into firing
position, a thousand feet from the target. This was not easy. First
of all, when we rolled in on Tugboat, we had to miss the guy coming
back to the perch, and then reverse the turn to get into firing
position. Now, we were going faster than blazes while closing on a
target that was going slower than syrup. The radar would not lock
on, so we manually ranged the sight with our throttle hand and tried
to track the rag with smooth stick movements. The sight was now
swimming with movement from our control inputs. We tried desperately
to track the rag as it got very big very fast. It was now collision
time as we squeezed the trigger. The cannons blazed, our heart
stopped, we rolled over the rag (missing by inches), raced by the
tow ship, pulled back into a steep climb while aiming for the perch,
missed the guy coming down who raced right at us as he reversed to
fire. This went on, pass after pass, until we were wringing wet with
sweat and out of ammo.
Sometimes the day was cloudy and Tugboat was not in the restricted
area over Lake Ontario, and bullets ended up hitting the outhouse of
a bar and grill on the south shore. But luck was with us, no one was
in the place! The guilty pilot, however, was easily traced. Each
pilot had his ammo dipped in color-coded paint to assist in scoring
the target. Nasty break.
Sometimes we did not miss the target when we rolled over the top,
and instead we flew right through it, hitting a large iron bar that
could slice a wing off, ruining our whole day! "Baron" Von Thisen
was lucky, however, when he brought the bar back home, embedded in
his wing. Strong aircraft, that Sabre! The maintainers, ever
resourceful, swapped the damaged wing for a good one located on a
display Sabre at the local American Legion. It worked fine!
Speaking of bringing things back home, recovering the banner from
Tugboat was not a piece of cake. The target was dropped at home
plate and involved a lot of nail biting by the following players:
The tower, who would broadcast over Guard frequency, "Everyone must
exit the area. Tugboat is inbound for a target drop." Then by the
pilot in mobile control who would call, "Drop target now." He often
scored a bull's eye on the runway, tying up traffic for awhile!
Finally by Tugboat, who was very, very low on fuel, and who once
flew too low, dragging the target through the power lines, cutting
electricity to northern NewYork. We needed the target back to score
our hits. It took 17% to qualify, and it was not easy. I have been
on missions where we all fired one color to qualify a squadron mate,
but failed. Most of the time, though, we were successful (they never
knew what we did for them!).
This all became a lot easier when we started firing on the dart.
First, we only needed one hit, and we could usually see that happen.
Second, the dart was not speed limited, so closure rates when
tracking were a lot lower, which gave us much, more time to fire.
Dart recovery however, was trickier, to say the least. When the dart
was released. it sailed a long way and not always in a straight
line. Once. 'TY' Costello was in the mobile control unit and called.
"Drop target now." He scored a bull's-eye on a moving tractor!
We flew low level navigation through the beautiful Adirondack
Mountains near the Canadian border to the air-to-ground gunnery
range at Fort Drum in northern New York. In the winter. we deployed
to Florida for several weeks. The usual bet was a beer per event
with the losers paying the winner. In a flight of four doing skip
and dive bombing plus rockets and strafe, if one guy won them all,
it could result in a good many free ones at the bar! This, however,
seldom happened because competition was keen.
Skip bombing was the most fun, once we got over the fear of racing
over the ground at 400 knots at 35 feet. The target was a large
rectangular banner hung between telephone posts. A hit in the banner
was a hit, but a hit in the base of the banner was what we all aimed
for. The secret was to go low without getting fouled by the range
officer, another pilot doing detestable duty. Once Ron Lang was
lining up on the target and pressing hard when he flew through a
tree. Always a resourceful fighter pilot, he claimed a bird strike.
After landing, however, the Ops officer (our boss) found bark
embedded in his wing. He then announced that, "The bird must have
been sitting in a tree!"
Once when we were in Libya, North Africa in 1962, John "The Baron"
Von Thisen set his switches wrong and dropped both external tanks on
the skip target. His comment then was, "Well, was it a skip hit or a
hit on the fly?" In his defense, ”switchology” was a problem with
the '86 due to the location of the armament panel.
bombing was the most challenging of all air-to-ground events. At
first our dive angle was 60 degrees, which seemed like straight
down. For this we used idle thrust and speed brakes. Later we went
to a less thrilling 30 degrees, which was also less accurate.
We had no computers to tell us when to release the bombs to get a
hit; it was all Kentucky windage and pressing as low as we could go
without getting fouled by the range officer. If he was a good guy
and we bribed him with enough drinks he would call us for pressing
as a warning before fouling us on our next pass. If we got one foul,
we lost the event and our bomb was calculated as a 300 foot miss
from the target (a gross error). If we were fouled twice on the same
mission, the range officer would throw us off the range, and this
meant big trouble from the Ops officer when we landed. To qualify in
high-angle bombing, the average of all bombs dropped had to be 140
feet or less from the bulls-eye. To win the event and collect the
beers. our score would probably have to be 50 feet or less.
The rocket event offered the gratification of seeing a white streak
leap out in front of our aircraft and race to the target. It had a
hypnotic effect, however, on the shooter which could cause a delay
in the aircraft's recovery while watching the rocket impact the
target. Needless to say, this would upset the range officer, and the
shooter would hear the dreaded word, "foul". We fired the 2.75-inch
folding fin jobs. They had fair ballistics, except when one of the
four fins would not extend. The rocket could and would go anywhere,
even at the range tower inhabited by the range officer who saw no
humor in it at all. This was a very bad break for the shooter!
“Switchology” was also a real problem in this event. The armament
panel was behind the pilot's left elbow, and it had to be set after
each shot as a safety precaution. During this procedure, Cal Fearon
once fired two rockets, just missing his leader. His comment was,
"Sorry about that!"
Strafe was the last event, and it always separated the men from the
boys in our squadron. We fired only two of our four 20mm cannons,
which were relatively accurate when compared to the ballistics of
the old .50 caliber mounted on other Sabre variants. Qualifying
required 25%, but to take the beers our score had to be well over
50%. We rolled in on the strafe panels from 3,000 feet in a
rectangular pattern, accelerating to above 350 knots. Pipper
placement was everything, and it required a lot of concentration and
coordination to get it right. Initially the pipper was well in front
of the panel. As we accelerated to 350 knots and closed on the
target. we allowed the pipper to slowly work its way to the panel
stopping the pipper on the target and firing a burst just prior to
reaching the dreaded foul line. Then it was yank the nose above the
horizon and bank in the direction of traffic and do it again and
again. until we called 'Winchester’ (ammo gone-generally 100
Being a range officer was a learning experience. I caught G. William
Gregory cracking his speed brakes on final to stabilize the aircraft
before he fired. This must have helped because he usually won the
event. I was the range officer when Major Freddy Helderfine gave me
the scare of my career. I watched him pass the foul line, then fire
and yank the stick, just missing the target with his tailpipe. The
panel was blown over by his jetwash! My shaky brown bar comment was,
"You're pressing, Lead".
the last pass, some flight leaders would request a "rack check" from
the range officer to be sure all bombs were expended. This was
nothing but a legalized buzz job over the range tower to scare
everyone there, and we did!
F-86H 52-5747 of the 138th TFS, Syracuse Air National Guard, "The Boys From Syracuse"
Artist: Rudnei Dias da Cunha
Sabres and Furies
Duty In 1961
We were called to
active duty for the Berlin Crisis. Deploying to Phalsbourg, France,
we island-hopped with about 70 F-86Hs via Canada, Greenland, Iceland
and the United Kingdom - led by our wing commander, Charlie Sweeney,
who dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan during World War Two.
Flying in Europe was
something else. In simulated air-to-air combat, the Sabre could beat
the Century Series Fighters if they would stay and fight. We cruised
at 41,000 feet. Few of the others, if any, could do that. The '86
was not a solid instrument aircraft. It always wanted to turn, at
least in my hands. But in those days, we were "dayfighter pilots",
leaving the night and bad weather flying to the '86 Dogs or '94s.
Instrument approaches were emergency procedures, although in Europe
we did a lot of them.
The only threat to an
'86 was another '86. Most notably, those Canadian Sabre Mark 6
drivers from Grostenquin (GT) or Solingen Air Bases. Even though the
'86H had the most power of all the Sabre variants, the Mark 6 had a
slightly better thrust-to-weight ratio and lower wing loading. I
used to "trap" them at my 6 o'clock on a regular basis. It went
something like this: takeoff, suck up the gear and flaps, into the
soup to on top, check the mirror, break into the Mark 6s for 30
minutes of bank, yank and near-collisions; then back into the soup
for a minimum fuel GCA to home plate.
On occasion, when the
Canadians were grounded with bad weather and "Eli" Culbertson was in
the lead, we would cruise over to GT. Eli would request a practice
GCA low approach for a flight of four Sabres. As we turned onto
final, radar would ask, "What will be your airspeed on final?" Eli
would respond, "400 knots”. Without missing a beat, radar would
answer, "Your rate of descent on final will be 1,754 feet per
minute". We now knew we were in for another ride of our lives as Eli
ordered a 'diamond formation", and we hurled down the glide slope!
The controller was calm as he gave commands to our leader, such as.
"You're high, you're low, you're left, or you're right." We would
break out, screaming along at less than 100 feet, with rain beating
on our canopies and Eli would bank and yank to buzz the 431st
Squadron's hangar as we three wingies hung on for dear life! Then it
was back up into the clag for a quiet return to base. Man! It was
fun! What did I know? I was a young captain with these WWII types as
my leaders. That's my excuse, and I m sticking to it!
"Sabre Night" occurred
on May 18. 1962. It was a party, and we hosted for all F-86 drivers
in Europe. We packed our speed brakes with thousands of flyers and
delivered them via air mail to Sabre bases all over France and
Germany. General Adolph Galland, the chief of German fighters in
World War Two, was our guest speaker. He flew his own private
aircraft to Phalsbourg, escorted by Sabres from the German Air
Force. Canadian, German and American Sabre pilots had a night to
remember. I wish I could tell you about it, but I can't recall any
In the mid-Sixties, I
transferred to the Ohio Air National Guard and flew F-I00Cs at
Columbus. I was never really comfortable in the Hun. The "C" had no
flaps, so takeoffs and landings were very fast, such as at 190
knots. If we lost our dragchute on landing, we were going to roll
two miles, and then engage a barrier at the far end of the runway.
In afterburner the Hun would go supersonic at a tremendous cost in
fuel, but the major problem was its lack of maneuverability as
compared to the Sabre. Good grief, how it could and would depart
In the late
Sixties, it was back to "The Boys from Syracuse" and the F-86H. Our
brother unit at Niagara Falls by now had F-100s, and much of our
time was spent in the skies of western New York trolling for those
much hated Huns. One of my squadron mates, TJ Costello, was on a
test hop, climbing to altitude when a flight of F-100s from Niagara
called Syracuse tower for a "low pass over the Air Guard ramp." TJ
immediately appointed himself the "Defender of Squadron Honor' and
plunged his Sabre at the hated Huns, beating all in a real hairy low
altitude dogfight. The leader of the Huns was the active duty Air
Force advisor to the Niagara unit, and he was mad as all get out. It
was a nasty break for TJ who spent the next month trying to avoid a
flying evaluation board which if convened would have cost his wings
and commission! In the bar, however, TJ and his Sabre were heroes!
Some of us went on temporary duty to Saudi
Arabia to ferry F-86Fs to Portugal. It was scary. The Arabs had
washed these birds for years in salt water! The "F" felt
underpowered as compared to the "H". Indeed, the "H" had 50% more
deployments were to MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida to
practice our gunnery skills and terrorize nearby Phantom drivers and
their assistants. The call would be heard! "Phantom over point
X-ray, come out of burner. You're melting my canopy!" An Eastern
Airlines captain who viewed an encounter reported to the FAA that we
were doing aerobatics on the airway! The FAA took a dim view of the
Another deployment to sunny Puerto Rico to
conduct air strikes in a joint military training exercise culminated
in a "D-Day" type airborne and amphibious assault involving
thousands of troops.
Our squadron was
activated again in 1968 after the Pueblo Crisis, and we deployed to
Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico which was an F-100 base. So it
was back to chasing Huns, but this time in the skies of the
southwest. We returned by 1969.
My Sabre affair ended
in 1970 with our transition into the A-37B and later the A-10A After
30 years of flying fighters, my last operational flight was on a
deployment to Germany in the A-10A in 1984, with my last bomb being
scored a bulls-eye. But nothing ever quite compared to my 1,500
hours in Sabres. Occasionally I return to visit my squadron and gaze
out from the Officers Club over a fight line of F-16s. But also
visible from that window is one remaining F-86H on gate guardian
duty. Below that Sabre's canopy is stenciled, "Pilot: Jim "Skinny"
The Sabre Jet
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