by Pete Beeble
In the summer of 1961, the communist leaders of the Soviet Union began making noises about a separate peace between East Germany and the USSR. At the same time, they began building the infamous Berlin Wall between West Berlin and its communist neighbors in the east. Thoughts of the 1948 Berlin Blockade began to arise in Washington. President John Kennedy responded to the threat by strengthening the squadrons assigned to USAFE and NATO.
This was done through mobilization of the Air National Guard units throughout the United States. A total of thirty-one Air National Guard squadrons were called to active duty in the Fall of 1961 - three were equipped with the F-100C Super Sabre, twelve with F-84F Thunderstreaks, four with RF-84F Thunderflash reconnaissance aircraft, six C-97A transport squadrons. Three more squadrons had F-104A interceptors, and three squadrons of F-86H Sabres. The F-86H units were the 101st and 131st TFS, Massachusetts ANG, and the 138th TFS, New York ANG.
On 30 October 1961 the tactical fighter squadrons were assembled at Loring AFB, ME to await the "Go!" signal for the Hi-Flight that would take them to various bases on the European continent for the next twelve months. I was a member of the 138th TFS, "The Boys from Syracuse". The operation was codenamed STAIR STEP, and we departed Syracuse to join up with the other F-86H squadrons from Boston and Westfield, Massachusetts, at Loring.
The Hi-Flight took us over the route flown by many other Air Force crews that had deployed to Europe since World War Two - Newfoundlarid, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, France. Our final destination was Phalsbourg AB, France, where we were assigned to the 17th Air Force, USAFE. Although our F-86Hs had a nuclear capability, the mission of the three F-86H squadrons would b strictly tactical fighter bomber. A number of on aircraft were on constant alert 24 hours a day. But other than building the Berlin Wall and generally making life miserable for a large number of German citizens in both West and East Germany, the threat posed by the Soviets seemed to be minimal.
With that in mind, the activated Guard units began doing what comes naturally, rat racing in the skies over Europe when the weather permitted. But in spite of the typically bad European weather, we had a ball. Once on top of the overcast, everybody was fair gain and there was a lot of 'bouncing' going on. The F-86H with in 8920# thrust engine (the J73), was mor than able to hold its own against the British Hunters and German Canadair Sabre Mk. 6s.
There were many high spots during the STAIR STEP deployment, including several gunnery deployments to Wheelus AB, Libya, and a NATO base exchange with a West German Sabre squadron based at Leck, Germany. Leck flew the Canadair Mk. 6 with the Rolls Royce engine and it was a good match for the J73 powered F-86H. The Germans were great hosts, showing us the more interesting sights in Hamburg. In turn, they visited us at Phalsbourg and we took them to Paris.
In October 1962, the Guard was deactivated and returned to state control after a return Hi-Flight. The Air Force allowed any pilots who wanted to remain on active duty to do so. Those who didn't stay in, Hi-Flighted back to their Stateside home bases, taking our beloved F-86Hs with them.
Along with many others (And much to the chagrin of our families back in the States), I opted to resume my Air Force career..We stayed in Europe and helped organ ize the newly activated 366th TFW which was head quartered at Chaumont AB, France. Our aircraft were a bunch of well worn ex-Guard F-84F Thunderstreaks that had been deployed under STAIR STEP against the Berlin Wall crisis the year before. Many of the Guard pilots who returned home found themselves in a newer and better aircraft than those left behind for us to meet the Soviet threat.
I'd previously flown the F-84F and G 'plank-wing' Thunderjet, but the transition into the '84F after years of flying the F-86H was a frightening experience. Instead of leaping forward at brake release, the '84F just sat there for a few seconds before inching, and I mean inching down the runway. Now I knew why they called the Republic F-84 series "Hogs".
We were assigned targets in East Germany but many of us wondered how effective our iron bombs would be with all the SIOP going off around us. Fortunately, we never found out. The 366th Wing remained in France for another year before DeGaulle kicked us out of the country. I went back to the States via another Hi-Flight on my way to HollomanAFB, NM.
After a few more years, I returned to my Republic roots and flew a tour in '105s out of Takhli. But for me, the erection of the Berlin Wall was a godsend enabling me to complete a twenty-two year Air Force career. However, I am glad the thing was finally been knocked down.
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