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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: www.sabre-pilots.org

 

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.

 

    We 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" pattern!

 

    In 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.

 

    The "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. We 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.

Dive 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 rounds).

 

    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".

 

    After 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

Website: Sabres and Furies

 

Active 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 more!

 

 

Back In The States

 

    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 controlled flight.

 

     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 thrust.

 

     Our winter 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 encroachment.

 

    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" McLennan."

 

The Sabre Jet Classics is published by the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association soley for the private use of its members. No portion of these articles may be used or reprinted without the express permission of the Association's President or the editor of the magzine.

 

Sabre Pilots Association
Post Office Box 34423
Las Vegas, Nevada 89133-4423

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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