A FIREBALL IN THE NIGHT

by Dwight Purdy

The scramble horn was the signal to move fast. The flight, this night in October, 1955, was actually a routine training mission. With every training flight, how-ever, we used the Air Defense Command's scramble system, which kept us a little closer to the state of alert we were always pursuing. I was into the cockpit and had the engine started and hit the runway rolling with clearance from D-M (Davis-Monthan) tower. No challenge, I was airborne well within five minutes, off into the inky blackness of the sky over the Arizona desert west of Tucson. Sleep well. Arizona. The brave de-fenders of the 15th Fighter Interceptor Squadron are protecting you.

The flight profile was simple. From D-M, I was to head northwest to the Hassayampa radio beacon, which was somewhat west of Phoenix, then north to Prescott, where I was to turn around and fly the same course in reverse. My flight altitude was only 24,000 feet, well below the optimum 30,000 at which the F-86D per-formed best. The objective of the mission was to make me more familiar with the fuel consumption characteristics of the aircraft in situations other than our usual mission profiles.

All went well, and at Hassayampa I made my turn and headed for Prescott. The lights of Phoenix were visible off on my right, as were the lights of Tempe and Mesa beyond, all separated by orange groves and desert. Glendale, though closer, was too small to make much of an impression. North of this area there were no lights; only the occasional twinkle that could be almost anything. When I got to Prescott, I made a 180 turn and wrote down the fuel level and compared it with my mission profile. I was shocked to find a huge discrepancy and the sudden realization that I couldn't afford the dogleg to Hassayampa if I was to have enough fuel to get back to D-M. There was an unexplained consumption of fuel that created a critical situation. I decided to abandon the mission profile and climb to the F-86D's optimum cruise altitude and head direct for Tucson. With that thought. I shoved the throttle forward for full power to climb.

What happened then was even more of a surprise. From behind me came a tremendous explosion. I jerked the throttle back, and watched in dismay as yellow and red warning lights started lighting up all over the cockpit. I realized that my engine had just gone bye-bye, and that I better come up with some new plans. I called Davis-Monthan tower to report my problems, and told them I was headed for Luke Field. Luke gave me clearance to approach from the northeast, but be-fore I could even acknowledge them, my radio failed. I headed for the bright lights in the distance that marked the runway where I intended to land, and began to realize that I wasn't going to make it. The F-86D had a high wing loading and came down very fast. I went through an airstart procedure to see if there was anything at all available from the engine. I was pleased when it actually started, although it would only get up to about 18% of power - about half of what it took to bring the generator up and give back my radio. I figured it was better than nothing and I left it at that setting and started planning an ejection.

Another surprise appeared. There was an airfield al-most directly, below me! Bailing out wasn't my only option! I was both pleased and chagrined to realize that I had been homing in on the Litchfield Park air-port, which was brightly lighted, and missed Luke, with much more subdued lighting. Luke Field was just off my right wing and I had only one approach available - to land in the direction opposite to the way they expected me. Sure enough, I could see red lights flashing from vehicles near the runway, as they prepared for my emergency landing.

I dumped the landing gear, the speed brakes and the flaps, all at once. If I thought that bird had a steep glide angle before, I was imitating a rock now. With the failure of the electrical system I had no way of knowing if the landing gear was really down, and I could only hope. Whatever, the ground was coming up fast, and from my steep diving turn I concentrated on making a touchdown in the first quarter of the runway. It actually went quite well, and I began a flare-out just after I crossed the end of the runway - skimming right over the crash barrier that had been erected for my expected approach from the opposite direction.

The touchdown was gorgeous, and I reached up and pulled the drag chute handle to help slow this high-speed tricycle down to reasonable speeds. Moments later I was impressed by the bright red light that came from behind me, and I wondered how the fire department had managed to catch up with me so fast, particularly from the wrong direction. Then spied what no pilot wants to see; a fire warning light. Of course - the engine! I jerked the throttle to off position, which shut down all fuel flow and the indicator light went dark, as did the red glow reflected from the drag chute. I watched the tailpipe temperature, which had been pegged, rapidly return to zero. I dumped the chute, rolled to a stop and began shutting down all systems. A fire rescue crewman appeared on my left canopy rail and began trying to get me out of the plane, but I was having none of that until I had finished my shut-down procedures. No board of inquiry was going to ask me why I left this or that switch on and ultimately blame me for the engine failure in the first place. He was yelling that the plane was on fire and I had to get out. I knew I had shut down the source for the fire, so I gnored him. When I finally got out, I think they were treating him for nervous breakdown. It really wasn't a brilliant decision on my part.

The Captain who took me to flight operations in his staff car explained that I had been the most spectacular thing that had happened in years. My plane, turning on its final approach, was trailing a magnificent fireball dozens of feet long. My throttle setting was feeding raw fuel into the engine, which had stopped turning. It was burning behind the plane - lighting up the night sky like the fireball that it was. Everybody was waiting to see the impact as this burning plane smashed into the ground. I sort of disappointed them when I failed to crash.

I stepped out of the car and went into flight operations to formally close my flight plan. The nervous energy I had been running on suddenly failed. I almost needed help to get to the door, and I began shaking so bad that I couldn't write. The airman behind the counter had problems understanding why I had landed at Luke when there was no such flight plan. The housing office assigning me quarters for the night groused about my late unannounced check-in. Obviously, everything was back to normal.


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