by Verlin B. Tranter
What do you suppose were the thoughts and feelings of the surviving pilot on that fateful day? Share with me the true story behind that headline.
The weather was perfect for flying on a Fall day in 1954, and the mission was to engage any enemy aircraft which challenged our right to fly in international airspace off the east coast of Korea. If no MiGs came up, they were to turn their gun switches to "Camera Only", and practice air-to-air combat with friendly aircraft they might en-counter.
Ever since becoming jet pilots, they'd been motivated and taught to use their Sabres to destroy enemy aircraft. Dangerous business - Yes. But their confidence grew as they flew day after day against aerial targets and against each other in mock combat. And although they were sure of themselves, deep in the pits of their stomachs they were nervous and some degree of anxiety prevailed. If they went up against the MiGs, they would be locked in mortal combat. A sobering thought.
On this day, under a brilliant blue sky, they climbed higher and higher until the few puffy white clouds were far below them. From 35,000 feet they could see for miles, and they knew that their potential enemies could see them as well. After forty-five minutes of alert flying, they were sweaty and physically tired from the tension. No MiGs had been seen, so they went to plan "B" - seek out friendly adversaries.
The flight headed out to sea, where Navy and Marine fighters were often found. Soon two bogies were sighted at two o'clock high! Their spirits picked up and the adrenalin began flowing - they were ready for anything. The friendly dogfight lasted for what seemed like fifteen minutes, and the Sabre pilots were the victors - with gun camera film to prove it! They headed for "home plate", tired but happy and relaxed. After their success of the past few minutes, thoughts turned to the future, when their opponents might be the MiGs.
Suddenly, and without warning, there was a blue flash, a sound of crunching metal, and one of the Sabres began shaking and yawing. The airspeed dropped from about 350 to 200 knots. A mid-air collision with one of the Navy jets!
Thoughts raced wildly through the pilot's mind - "Would I die? Will my aircraft hold together long enough for me to land? Will the weakened airframe collapse on landing and cause a catastrophic ball of fire? But wait, first things first! I'm alive and the aircraft is still flying, although it is badly damaged." Emergency crews were alerted at home base, and fire trucks were standing by. After ex-tending the landing gear, the pilot was satisfied that the crucial hydraulic system was okay, and a successful landing seemed possible.
Now another thought came to mind. With the wing badly torn up and some of the "skin" flapping in the windstream, what would be a safe landing speed? Normally 120 knots would be plenty, but after some experimenting the pilot decided on a straight-in final approach using 170 knots. The long, cautious, final went as planned, and touch down was right at 170 knots. Nose wheel down immediately! Maximum braking! Pump the brakes so they won't overheat and lock up! After what seemed like an eternity, the F-86 came to a screeching halt at the end of the two-mile long runway. "Whew! On the ground and still alive!" With the full realization of how close he had come to disaster, the pilot said a prayer of thanksgiving. God had spared his life.
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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