"E" FLIGHT FROM CHITOSE
by Cliff Winter
October 1952, the 'hot war' in Korea was winding down and the 'Cold War' was warming up. The occupation of Japan had ended in April, leaving the Far East Air Force responsible for air defense of that island nation. I was assigned to the 41st Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Johnson AB, having just completed a tour in F-80s; with the 36th FBS at Suwon. In a few months the 41st would convert to F-86s.
My family had arrived in Japan about three months before, and we were looking forward to a couple of years without separation, when suddenly I received orders placing me TDY with Flight E (Provisional). I had no idea that the great flying would almost compensate for the new separation.
Flight 'E' was hatched because of Japanese concern over the intrusion of Russian MiGs over Hokkaido. MiG flights were coming down from bases in the northern Kuriles and on Sakhalin. FEAF air defenses consisted of a single squadron of F-84s at Chitose, and an early warning radar at the northern tip of the island. Major James Stewart, CO of the 41st, was given the job of creating the unit and selecting personnel, including pilots with F-86 experience. Luckily, I had 150 hours in the F-86 right out of flight training.
We were based at Chitose. Lacking experience in formIng such an organization,
Maj. Stewart dug out a TO&E, and drew the organizational chart in the dirt of the hanger floor. He called us together and had us stand in our assigned slot so he could tell which jobs were still open and assigned them on the spot.
I was eager to get a chance at the MiGs in a competitive Fighter like the '86 after some frustrating encounters flying F-80s in Korea. My flight then, had a few guys who, like me, had an itch to tangle with the MiGs. The prospect of air to air combat seemed like a ball 'in comparison to the impersonal ground fire we faced on our interdiction minions.
We conserved our fuel after 'working on, the railroad', so we could stay in the area a little longer. We'd discovered that after the '86s had left for home, a few MiGs would come looking for the defenseless F-80s. On a few missions, we managed to find each other. All we had to do was see them and turn into them and they were unable to get into position for a decent shot. Of course, we seldom got a shot at them either. But the game was a ball!! Natunilly, if they kept attacking, we had to keep turning and couldn't head for home, using up what was left of our fuel. They never figured this out and a couple of times we landed on fumes.
I cine very close to scoring on one mission. After doing our usual shoot 'em up along the MSR, we were jumped by what appeared to be a single MiG. I called
"Break right!", but my wingman called "Red Lead, roll out, you've got one passing under you." Sure enough, less than 200 feet ahead and low, a MiG had tried to slow down to match our turn. He misjudged and now realized he'd just made an "Oh s--t!" blunder. He was so close that he filled 1/3 of my windscreen.
In an instant I had the pipper centered on his tailpipe. He was dead meat! I squeezed the trigger and waited to hear the chatter of the six .50s. What I got was "Pop! Pop!". I was out of ammo! And the MiG pilot was out of there too soon for my wingman to slide over for a shot. So much for the highlight of my Korea tour.
After getting Flight E organized, our first task was to pick up twelve new F-86Fs at Kizarazu. The F model was new to me on top of the fact that I'd flown nothing but
F-80s; in over a year. So I did a lot of smiling during the refresher check-out. In early December, the pilots and aircraft flew to Chitose.
Upon arrival, the first thing I noticed was the snow. The second was the temperature. I had come face to face with the fact that we had moved a lot closer to the Arctic Circle. Snow fell often, and almost always in the form of short intense showers lasting 10-20 minutes. The shortage of alternates, combined with the snow showers, made for many a 'pucker moment'- By the end of December, the taxiways and runway were like tunnels. Mammoth snow blowers capable of getting the snow to the tops of 35 foot high piles, kept Chitose open most of the time.
An F-84 pilot found the deep snow to be a blessing when he landed short and wiped out the main landing gear. My wingman, Pat McGee, watched the '84 approach and landing. It became obvious that the '84 was going to land short. Pat said it was a spectacular sight when that '84 disappeared into the snow about 1000' short of the over run, remaining hidden until it bunt into sight with snow flying in all directions, and sliding more than 2000' straight down the runway. That left us with two choices, one was poor and the other lousy. We could land over the '84 and try to stop on the remaining 3000' of ice runway. Or we could try and make one of the alternates on what was left of our fuel. Being cocky fighter pilots, we chose the former. We'd have 2500' of runway, plus the over run to get stopped in. And if that wasn't enough, the big snow bank at the end "looked pretty soft"! As it turned out, I was actually able to turn off on the last taxiway. Pat also got stopped but blew a tire when he hit one of the few dry patches of runway.
Flight E's mission was to discourage the MiGs from entering Japanese airspace. This was easier said than done as them was no GCI capability on Hokkaido. The only radar in the area was an early warning station on the northern tip. They were able to tell us - by landline! - the location in latitude and longitude of the intruder, but no intercept information.
Once airborne we had no radio contact with the radar guys, and were left to find a couple of very tiny aircraft in a very large sky. To my knowledge, no contact was ever made as a result of any of these scrambles. Normally, we patrolled near the area where the MiGs might be. Apparently, this was successful because the MiGs stayed well cear of us. And reports of overflights dropped considerably. Occasionally, our guys reported seeing a flight of MiGs in the distance, making tracks for home.
To give us more patrol time, a deployment base was set up at Kenebetsu, about 200 miles north of Chitose. Kenebetsu was an old Japanese fighter base, but was now deserted. Six of our airmen, including a cook, starter unit, fuel truck, and practically nothing else, went to Kenebetsu to provide refueling and alert capability. The men slept in tents and cooked over open fires. We had to eat with our gloves on. To us pilots, it was a pretty lousy existence. But the ground crew seemed to enjoy it.
Wben the weather permitted, a flight of F-86s would leave Chitose, fly a patrol over the east coast and land at Kenebetsu. After refueling and lunch, we would repeat the patrol and head back to Cohost. Bemuse we were flying into the teeth of the jet stream, which often exceeded 150 knots and snow showers were a likely possibility at Chitose, fuel reserve was always a serious concern. By late January 1953, I still had sighted no more than a couple of MiG flights. I was scheduled to patrol what we knew as the MacArthur Line, a line established between Sakhalin and Hokkaido. Julian Logan was my wingman. Pat McGee and Abe Lincicome had the other element. We all liked having Pat with us because of his unbelievable eyesight. He could spot another aircraft long before anyone else. I felt that a decoy operation might bring the MiGs across the MacArthur Line where they'd be fair game.
I asked Pat to follow us by 15 minutes, and to fly where his flight would leave an obvious contrail. I planned to penetrate the southern coast of Sakhalin above the cons. This would allow the Russians to scramble the MiGs before we started our turn back. My hope was that the MiGs would head south, and instead of finding us, they'd see Pat's flight clearly visible heading north. And that's what happened.
It was late afternoon when we spotted Pat's flight clearly visible heading north. With absolutely lucky timing, a flight of MiGs was headed south, conning brightly. I called them out to Pat, who acknowledged and said he was steady at 27,000'. It was the kind of perfect setup that all fighter pilots dream about altitude advantage and surprise!
We punched off our tanks, hoping the bad guys wouldn't notice them flashing in the sun. I was already picturing myself painting a big red star on the side of my Sabre. We were in perfect position at about 36,000'. Unfortunately, we were slightly east of their position and looking into the sun. As we started our dive, the two flights started to turn toward one another, putting them in a circle with Pat's flight turning through east and the MiGs turning through west.
During ourdive we were headed into the sun and I lost sight of both flights for a few seconds. I made a quick judgment as to which flight was which, and here's where I blew it. I closed on the No. 2 man with everything in my favor. I was looking right up his tailpipe from. about 2500' and closing rapidly. I was actually starting to squeeze the trigger when I suddenly realized it wasn't a MiG. It was an '86. I had come within a split second of shooting down Abe Lincicome. We still had plenty of excessive air speed so we pulled up and turned north expecting the MiGs to be headed in that direction. But they turned west and were making tracks out of there. Once again, I had missed my chance to finally get a MiG. We tried the decoy operation a few more times but the MiGs failed to fall for it again.
But chasing Migs wasn't our only source of entertainment. Before the F-86, few of us had had the opportunity to break the sound barrier. So occasionally, we would launch with a cean aircraft to see just how fast it would go. We'd climb to about 30,000, point the nose straight down with full power, and stomp on the floor to get the Mach meter to indicate mom than 1.0. The most we could get was about 1.04. We also learned two other things - start your pullout at above 10,000' to avoid colliding with the planet, and not to use Chitose as an aiming point. How were we to know the post commander's wife lived there, and she had precious dishes in her closet. We were firmly told to find a new playground.
At Chitose, I had been adopted by a lovable, wooly puppy peculiar to the harsh winters of Hokkaido. With my TDY over, I couldn't leave Dusty behind. But getting her back presented a problem. I was to fly an '86 back which my replacement would return in. Dusty was pretty calm so I decided to take her with me in the airplane. In spite of his obvious doubts, the crew chief passed her to me after strapping me in. Before taking the runway, I ran the engine to full power. Dusty seemed to accept this so off we went. The flight was uneventful and both the dog and I arrived none the worse for wear. I wish I had a picture of the crew chief's eyes at Johnson when I opened the carropy and handed Dusty to him.
Flight E (Provisional) was a truly unique and enjoyable experience.
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