The Way It Was


by Ron Weinert

In the late 1950s, the 124th Fighter Group, 190th Fighter Interceptor Squadron ("First Class Or Not At All), Idaho Air National Guard, based in Boise Idaho, also known as FANGOs (Friggin' Air National Guard Officers), received F-86Ls. Checkouts were done in-house, and the unit was Proclaimed combat-ready and assumed full-time air defense alert posture, with two aircraft ready to scramble 24 hours a day. Part and full time pilots who were able to devote time to the eight-hour shifts filled the alert commitment.

For those of you 'real' fighter pilots who never few rocket armed interceptors, here's a bit of 'Ground School' on airborne intercepts circa the 1960s. Rocket attacks were generally flown on a 90-degree "Lead Collision-Course" beam attack. The interceptor was positioned by GCI, and when the airborne radar gave him a contact, he woould 'lock on'. The computer adjusted for speed and drift, and guided the aircraft on a collision course with the target MINUS the distance the rockets would travel. The pilot flew the airplane according to the computer directions displayed on his scope. There was a 'rate of overtake' circle showing the closure rate.

If the interceptor was ahead of the 90º beam, the closure rates increased and decreased as the fighter fell behind the 90 º beam. Ideally, the fighter remained on the 900 beam, and the closure rates ran around 600 knots, with the 'target' at around 300 knots TAS and the 'attacker' somewhat faster. The 'miss distance', or the distance by which the fighter and target missed each other, was about 250 feet on a 900 beam with a 600 knot overtake speed.

The interceptor pilot 'shoved his head into the scope', and flew a computer generated steering dot, striving to keep it exactly in the center. The scope had artificial horizon bars, so the pilot could see his pitch and bank attitude and maintain control during the attack At 20 seconds before "launch", the overtake circle 'snapped' to half size. The pilot then had a closer reference to 'bury the dot'. If all went well, the computer would insure that the interceptor was not going to hit the target but the rockets presumably would.

At 10 seconds, after getting the final OK from the target, the interceptor pilot squeezed the trigger. The computer computed the exact firing time, automatically extended the rocket tray, fired, and then retracted the tray. The pilot would observe the circle shrinking to a dot, whereupon a large 'X' showed in the scope, and, in an actual firing pass, would feel and hear the rockets launch. Most training runs were made against the target aircraft itself. On live firing runs the target was the tow device, usually a Delmar.

It could get pretty interesting, especially if the fighter got ahead of the 90º beam. This could happen due to poor positioning by GCI, if the jock over-steered the dot, or if the target turned into the attacker or decreased speed radically. Attacks from 100-110º were pretty safe. Above that, the 'miss distance' became marginal, since the Projected rocket travel would be shorter as the attacker moved closer in a head-on position.

On dry runs, the key to safety was at "20 seconds". The target pilot looked for the fighter to start drifting. Up until that point, the attacker held a steady position. But at the "20 seconds" call he'd better be moving back along the target's canopy or there was danger of collision. The target could let him continue, with a 'Stand by" call, but if there was no movement at the "10 seconds" call, the target called for immediate break off of the attack. Perceiving movement, the target called Clear-, and the jock carried through the attack to (simulated) launch. If the jock didn't receive a verbal 'Clear" at "10 seconds", he immediately broke off by turning sharply in the direction of the target, thereby increasing 'miss distance.

It was demanding but safe, as long as procedures were followed; and as long as the fighter jock kept himself close to the beam. It could be pretty hairy at night especially on those 110º attacks, what with the tricks lights can play.

The F-86D also had the capability to fire manually in salvoes of 6, 12, or 24. Since there was no gun sight or other means of directing rocket travel (more strategic thinking by AF brass), this was merely for Jettisoning rockets. I once tried to fire rockets at a ground target from an F-102 for an evaluation of Deuce capabilities for 'Nam, and, even though the target was a hangar door, I never got one within half a mile of the thing.

Manual was pretty simple: on selected how many you wanted to fire, selected Manual, and pulled the trigger. The pod dropped, the rockets launched, and the pod retracted - no sweat, no strain. It either worked or it didn't; USUALLY it was foolproof.

For live rocket qualification, the closest air to air rocket range was at Wendover, Utah. The ''L'' had limited range, and fly ing from Boise to Wenclover and back left scant fuel for rocket passes. It was decided that the best course was to stage out of Wendover for rocket qualifications. The base was officially closed, but still suitable for operations, although fuel had to be trucked in from Hill. The tower was operational, and personnel from Hill could be TDY'd in for short stints. However, one summer Wendover couldn't be used, and the squadron used Hill.

On this Occasion, there were 6-8 F-86s and a T-Bird tow ship on the pad out in the 'pea patch' at Hill. The maintenance and armorers had flown down in the C-54, and the pilots brought the aircraft down from Boise. The T-bird towed what we called the 'Delmar', a fiberglass bomb shaped device about 4 feet long, with radar reflectors inside for a good return. On station, the tow aircraft would reel the Delmar out at least 1000 feet. After the mission, if it hadn't been shot off by one of the rockers, they could reel it back in.

So, there we were, at Hill AFB, ready for a live firing session. To improve the illusion of reality, we would do the exercise from 'alert' posture and scramble the first flight of two with the remaining flights in a 'cockpit alert'. Once the airborne flight was off the target, the remaining three flights were scrambled.

The first flight was Majors Ed Lungren and Jim Frazier. They were scrambled from their lounge chairs alongside the flight line, and were airborne in less than seven minutes. I was in the second Fight, and mounted up leisurely, strapped in, and had the APU plugged in, ready for the cramble'. I turned on the UHF, and switched over to tactical frequency. The Wendover Range was under 100 miles from Hill, and we could occasionally pick up the R/T traffic while they were still on the range

. After several minutes of sporadic transmissions, I heard something about "bailout". Then a staff car came screaming down the flight line, with the Group CO, Col. Ken Nordling, announcing that the mission had been scrubbed, and to proceed to the debriefing area.

This is what happened. On the first pass, either Ed or Jim had managed to hit the Delmar. The mission was over since that was the only T-Bird we had rigged for Delmar deployment. The pre-briefing was to jettison any rockers not fired rather than bring them back.

Ed and Jim broke off and headed to the designated jettison area, dropping down to around 5000 AGE to pickle off their remaining rockers. Ed selected Manual, SIX, and squeezed the trigger. Everything worked fine except that the some of the rockets 'launched' while the tray was still retracted, advancing several inches into the forward electronics bay.

The Master Caution Panel lit up like Las Vegas, the stick froze, and Ed noted that his Sabre was on a direct collision course with Earth. He did what every brave and fearless fighter jock would have done in the same situation - he punched out!

But, there's more: When the chute opened, the chest strap and buckle came up very smartly rapping him under the chin, and he found himself hanging from the chute, held in only by his crossed arms over the chest strap. His fanny was out of the sling, and he swayed gently with the oscillations of the chute. It seems in the simlated>/u> scramble. he leaped into the cockpit and hooked up every strap except the leg straps. He'd been a paratrooper and smoke jumper and that probably saved him, as he instinctively went into a jumper's "pike" with his arms crossed over his chest. Otherwise, the 'chute opening shock would have shot him out of the harness like an arrow from William Tell's bow.

His only injuries were a pretty badly wrenched shoulder, and some sore ribs, mostly from the ribbing he took for shooting himself down - "Four more, and you'll be an ace". Ed later flew the F-102 with the Idaho Guard, and continued his airline career, retiring from Northwest Airlines in the 1990s, then a DC-10 simulator and line check pilot with Federal Express. He now works as a FedEx consultant, and lives in Collierville, Tennessee.

The Dog Sabre (and the 'L') wasn't really a fighter, but it got a lot of us into the Sabre Society, and I do appreciate that. Other than that, about all I can say about flying interceptors was that we got to say "Judy" a lot, which is what the Spitfire guys said during the Battle of Britain. That's about as close as we got.

No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.

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