Manuel J. "Pete Fernandez

by Larry Davis

The Unknown Ace
Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez
by Larry Davis

Quick now, name the top THREE aces in the Korean War. You probably got the first two right away - McConnell and Jabara. But the third is elusive to most people. This is the story of that man - to a point. There are questions about the circumstances surrounding his death which may be answered in the near future.

I met Pete back in the late 1970s when I was interviewing Korean War pilots for my book `MiG Alley'. He was always a joy to talk to and we spent many an hour on Ma Bell's phone lines talking about flying. I thought he was great. And in talking with many of you about this article, I found out that everyone that flew with him thought he was truly great. The author thanks the many people that helped in putting this quick biography together. These include; Mr. Robert Blurton, cousin of `Pete' Fernandez, members Jim Escalle, John Lowery, Charlie Cox, and many others that supplied tidbits about Pete's life.

Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez was born in Miami, Florida in 1925. He graduated from Miami Jackson High School and enlisted in the US Army in 1943, applying for and being taken into the Army Pilot Training program. The end of the war and his at teaching kept him out of combat and he remained in Texas as an instructor pilot. In February 1948, Charlie Cox and Pete were serving together in the 23rd Fighter Squadron, 36th Fighter Group at Howard AB in the Panama Canal Zone. Later that same year, the 36th was transferred to Furstenfeldbruck, Germany. Many of the pilots, including Pete, were transitioning from the F-47N Thunderbolt into the new jet-powered F-80B Shooting Star. The 36th Group was transported from the Canal Zone to Glasgow, Scotland, by Navy aircraft carrier, and on 13 August 1948 began the flight to Furstenfeldbruck. Charlie Cox recalls: "The first leg went to Manston where the RAF threw a big party, with each side trying to outdrink the other. Pete and I tried to blend in. The next leg went to Weishaden, Germany, where we got to see first hand the destruction that air power could bring. It was amazing to see all the large building that were gutted and all the streets were still piled with rubble."

"The last leg took us to Fursty and we arrived with no losses. Our overseas tour that had began in the Canal Zone, ended with eight months at Fursty. It was the Winter of 1948-49 and our mission was support for the Berlin Airlift. As much as possible, we became `combat qualified' and that was the first time that I witnessed how strong a pilot Pete was. Although without any combat experience, Pete could handle the F-80 with the best of them. And we were loaded with combat veterans."

"In May 1949, Pete and I rotated back to the States at the same time. We were bound for Las Vegas AFB, now Nellis AFB, we stopped at Williams AFB to upgrade into the F-51 D. At Las Vegas, we were split into different flights. Later, Las Vegas was converted from advanced flying training to a gunnery training base and became a pipeline that sent pilots to the war in Korea. It was clear to me and many others that the pilots trained by Pete were getting the best there was (Joe McConnell was one of Pete's trainees!)"

Lon Walter recalls; "Pete Fernandez was one of my advanced flying school instructors in the Spring of 1950. One moonlit night, towards the end of my T-6 phase, Pete was in the back seat of the T-6 and I was up front. My assignment was to navigate from las Vegas to Silver Lake, California, then to Needles, CA, before returning the Las Vegas. It was a piece of cake and we both knew it. But it was part of the course." "Between Silver Lake and Needles, I looked in the rear view mirror and noticed that Pete was snoozing. The turn back to Las Vegas at Needles was a little more than 90, so I thought I'd have some fun with him. When I made the turn, I racked it in, pulling about 3 g's. I watched in the mirror as Pete really came awake with a start. He laughed over the intercom, knowing exactly what I'd done, and said something to the effect, " ass!" I got my wings in June and went directly to the 4th Wing at Andrews. I hoped our paths would cross again but it didn't happen."

Charlie Cox: "Pete not only could teach by talking, but he could demonstrate it in flight as well. (When Major Vermont Garrison formed his Nellis Acrobatic Team "The Mach Riders", he had Pete flying left Wing. Bill Wescott flew Right Wing, Wendell Brady was Slot, and Bill Craig was the Solo man.) In the late Summer of 1952, Pete and I went to Korea. Pete was assigned to the 334th Squadron at Kimpo, and I went to the 51st Wing at Suwon. We never served together again."

Pete arrived at Kimpo in September 1952, scoring his first victory on
4 October. He became an ace on 18 February 1953 when he shot down two MiGs for his 5th and 6th kills. Coincidently, his `student' Joe McConnell also made ace that same day. Pete was a natural fighter pilot.

John Lowery recalls:" Pete got most of his kills at high altitude. Many of the old heads from World War Two had difficulty getting in range of the MiG-15 at high altitude. LtCol. Bill Cosby, our commander in the 334th Squadron, asked Pete what his secret was. Pete replied that he always cruised at 45-48,000 feet, running at .9 Mach."

"Then his flight would turn off the IFF and head directly into Manchuria for a few miles before making a carefully executed turn (never more than a 15 bank) back to the south. This would often put him at the 6 o'clock position on the MiG flights coming out of Antung as they were climbing and heading south. They wouldn't even know he was there until he hit them. Pete said that occasionally, he wound up IN the MiG formations. He emphasized that by cruising at .9 Mach, he had never had a MiG get on his tail. (The MiG was limited to .92 Mach)"

On 18 May 1953, Pete Fernandez had flown 124 missions. He was scheduled to fly one more mission. He'd put in a request to fly 25 more for a total of 150, but 5th Air Force had turned him down. On this day Pete looked at the schedule board. He wasn't on it, not even as 5 minute alert. Lt. Gen. Glenn Barcus, commander of 5th AF, invited Pete down to Headquarters to listen in on the action - if there was any.

Pete watched as the plotters moved the little airplanes up into MiG Alley. Flight reports started coming in. The air was full of MiGs and Pete had to bite his lip and wait. Suddenly the phone rang and General Barcus answered. He listened for awhile and then said: "I can't tell him that! If I do I won't be able to keep him on the ground." Then the general hung up.

"Pete", General Barcus said, " McConnell got two this morning." They were Mac's 14th and 15th victories, putting him one ahead of Pete. Pete smiled but his smile was thin. When he spoke he could hardly be heard. "Good show!" Before the ideal flying of 18 May was finished, McConnell had downed a third MiG, putting his total at 16 victories.

It was bitter medicine for Pete as General Barcus had already told him that both he and Mac were grounded and were going to go home. What made it worse was that he had to share one of his victories with Foster Lee Smith, which left him at 14 1/2 victories. Pete sullenly packed his bags and both he and Mac flew out of Korea on the 19th.

On 27 May, Pete and Mac were invited to the White House for a special luncheon with President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike wanted to hear all about the fighting in MiG Alley from his top two aces. During the Summer of 1953, Pete and several other aces from Korea, made a tour of various Air Force bases to inspire the folks back home. Following the tour, Pete went to George AFB, where he was assigned to the 479th Fighter Day Group.

It was during his tour at George that several important things occurred. First was his marriage in November 1953. Joe McConnell was one of the special guests at the wedding. In early 1954, Pete was invited to be Techinical Aavisor on a Hollywood movie being made about M Connell's life. He met and became lifelong friends with Jane Allyson and her husband Dick Powell. In 1958, Powell would produce and direct another Hollywood film about the Sabre pilots in Korea. The movie was "The Hunters", starring Bob Mitchum and Bob Wagner. Pete flew in many of the aerial scenes.

In 1956, following the transition of the 479th FDG from F-O86Fs to F-1OOA/C Super Sabres, Pete got another crack at military history. He was going to be the first Air Force pilot to fly a supersonic aircraft in the Bendix Trophy Race. Pete would fly an F-100 from George AFB to Oklahoma City. Air Force wanted a supersonic flight but strong headwinds prevented Pete from averaging more than 666.66 mph. Yet Pete still won the Bendix Trohpy, landing his F-1000 at Oklahoma City with barely two minutes of fuel left in his tanks.

Pete, now a Major, left George and went to the Test pilot School at Edwards. One would think that with his experience and skills that he would have been a natural with the test pilot mission. But such was not the case and Pete spent 1958 to 1960 as the Chief Recruiter for the Air Force in South Florida. In 1960, Pete was a Military Advisor to the Argentine Air Force as they converted to F-86 Sabres. Based at Mendoza AFB, Pete was both an instructor pilot and advisor. He even formed the first Argentine AF gunnery team in F-86 aircraft, which won the Top Gun trophy at Nellis AFB that same year.

Pete retired from the Air Force in 1963 with the rank of Major. But his flying days were far from over. At Miami International Airport he flew old rust bucket cargo aircraft from what became known as "Corrosion Corner", pioneering many new routes throughout Latin America. He was quite adept in this as his Latin heretige and language skills allowed him to go places other pilots could not.

In 1972, these same skills became the basis of a CIA operation. The CIA came to "Corrosion Corner" looking for a pilot to "borrow" a specific aircraft that the Peruvian Air Force had just obtained from the Soviet Union, an Antonov 26 with a special guidance system and Pete said that he could.

He spoke fluent Spanish, had the `Latin look', and had made many friends during his flights with Corrosion Corner. The Antonov was located on the military side of Lima International Airport. Pete simply strolled over to the airplane like he owned it. He got in, fired it up, and flew off to the north with no flight plan. Peruvian interceptors gave chase but Pete evaded them and flew hack to Florida. The escape maneuvers had burst all the blood vessels in his eyes and he had to be hospitalized for a short time.

The CIA paid him enough to buy a new home in the Miami area, and Pete went back to Corrosian Corner. This is where the story gets dark murky. What is known is that Manuel J. "Pete" Fernandez died in the crash of a Piper Geronomo on Grand Bahama Island on 17 October 1980. The facts surrounding the crash have never been fully documented and are being investigated.

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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