MY FIFTEEN MINUTE FIRE DRILL

by Bob Matasick

My form 5 for 13 September 1955 says it was a flight of 15 minutes with one landing. But what an interesting 15 minutes!

The 44th FBS was in its eighth day of a mobility exercise. We were operating out of Tao-Yuan Air Base on Formosa, living in 12 man tents, eating at a field kitchen, hating those outdoor latrines - but still flying training missions as if we were still at Kadena.

That morning I was scheduled to tow the target for the first mission of the day. As I left my tent and headed toward the operations shack, I could see that there weren't any holes in the cloud deck, and knew we'd be sitting around waiting for the weather to lift. After some time, a few holes began to appear and I was given the OK to go.

Everything was normal on the start-up, so I taxied to the end of the runway where the armament crew attached the target to my F-86. My ADF was tuned to the home field frequency (subsequent events cause me to wonder whether I really did have the proper frequency), but I deliberately didn't have it on "auto" since it was believed that the target could lead to false indications.

Run-up at 90% was normal so I released the brakes, pushed the throttle to 100% and started my take-off roll. I pulled the plane off at about 130 knots, and tried to climb at an angle that would maintain my airspeed just above 130 to prevent the target from rotating or tearing loose. I immediately began searching for holes in the cloud deck to minimize turbulence since I was dragging the target just above stall speed.

As I weaved my way through various openings, I concentrated on finding the next opening, being aware that I could get a fix on my position once I cleared the cloud deck. However, my concentration was interrupted by a horrific "Bang!" in the aft fuselage. It felt like a jolly green giant had wielded one hellacious blow with his sledgehammer. Almost instantaneously, both the forward and aft fire warning lights glared at me, and the entire airplane began vibrating so severely that it felt like it was going to shake itself apart.

I'd always heard that old adage that flying was hours of sheer boredom, interrupted by moments of stark terror. In my case, it wasn't "moments". I certainly experienced many seconds of helplessness when I wondered just what the hell was going on. After the initial shock, I started talking to myself:

"No need to panic, just go through the emergency procedures. Get rid of the target!" However, as I moved to jettison the target, I realized that it was already gone. I'd automatically popped it off without realizing it. "Throttle back to idle." Here again, as I moved to the throttle, I found it already back in the Idle position - another automatic reaction.

Unfortunately, neither of those actions seemed to help. The fire warning lights were still glowing, and the vibration was still rattling me around the cockpit. There was no other choice but to stopcock the throttle and shut down the engine. That helped ease the vibration, but those damn fire warning lights kept staring at me with an ominous red glow. They seemed to be reminding me that I had about 20 seconds before the compressor section would blow if the forward fire warning light wasn't a malfunction. And with the explosion and vibration I'd just experienced, I had every reason to believe that the warnings were real.

I finally made the decision to bail out and started through the bail out procedure by lowering my head prior to jettisoning the canopy. However, I was still mesmerized by the warning lights and never took my eyes off them as I lowered my head. Just as I was about to raise the ejection handle, the lights went out. I blinked and took a second look. Sure enough, the lights were out. With the lights out and the vibration gone, I decided to reassess my situation rather than doing something foolish like bailing out - at least not yet.

My altitude was just over 3000 feet, and air speed was about 135 knots. I lowered the nose to gain the optimum glide speed of 185 knots, and flipped the ADF control to automatic. The ADF needle pointed to my 2 o'clock position so I eased the airplane to the right to get the needle on the nose. I decided to ride it out down to 1500 feet. If I didn't have a runway in sight by then, I'd go ahead and bail out.

About that time, with everything in some semblance of control, I felt I had time to declare a Mayday! and make Mobile Control aware of my situation:
"Mobile, this is Punchbowl White Tow, I have a Mayday!"
"Roger White Tow, what's your problem?"
"Mobile, I've had an explosion in the aft section, Both fire warning lights were on. I've stopcocked the throttle and the lights are out."
"White Tow, drop the target and jettison your tanks."


Almost simultaneous with the last communication, I broke below the cloud deck and spotted a runway at 1 o'clock. I'd had a number of simulated flame-out approaches, but they were always the `standard' approach of being over the field at 6,000 feet and then `playing' a 360 turn into a landing at the end of the runway. As low as I was, I knew it was going to be a straight-in approach. But it appeared that I was going to be too high when I reached the end of the runway. So, not only did I not drop the tanks, I also lowered the landing gear.

"Mobile, the target is already gone. But I need the tanks to lose some ltitude."
"Roger White Tow, where are you?"
"Mobile, I'm north of the field about five miles out."
"Roger, White Tow. We don't have you in sight. Keep us advised."
"Roger Mobile."

Suddenly I realized that I was losing altitude much faster than I anticipated. I hadn't taken into account that every time I made a simulated flame-out approach, I'd done so at the end of a mission when I was very light on fuel. Here I had almost a full fuel load and it was making a very big difference.

I immediately dropped the tanks and flipped the gear lever into the Up position. But the gear did not retract. "Oh Shit!", I exclaimed, realizing that with a dead engine, I had no hydraulic pressure. There was nothing to do except to flip the gear lever back and hope that gravity would work it's magic and ease the gear into the locked position. I breathed a sigh of relief when the panel showed Down and Locked.

As I continued my approach to the field, I began checking the landscape for some of the landmarks that were north of Tao-Yuan - but nothing looked familiar. Suddenly it dawned on me. I wasn't coming into Tao-Yuan! That caused me some concern as I didn't have a runway being held for me. That meant I might be faced with dodging some other aircraft that were trying to land or take off. Fortunately, I couldn't see any activity so it appeared that I wouldn't have to wrestle with any Chinese planes for the runway. (I later learned that the Chinese squadrons had stood down until the weather cleared a bit more.)

I was about to advise Mobile about the situation when I spotted some electrical lines blocking my approach. I immediately abandoned all thoughts of making a position advisory. I had more important matters to consider.

I really had no choice on what I was going to do. I sure as hell wasn't about to give up any altitude by trying to go under the power lines. And I certainly wasn't about to try to `stretch' my glide and risk a stall by trying to pull up and over. So it was strictly a case of gritting my teeth and boring through. I was totally surprised at how easily the F-86 went through those wires. There wasn't a jolt or any other disruption to a smooth glide. Just a few `pings' as the wires broke, and a couple of sparks as the ends of the wires brushed along my fuselage.

From there on, it was strictly a matter of trying to coax the airplane down to a hard surface. It was obvious that I couldn't make the runway, but I could see that I was going to make it to the overrun. As I flared out however, I recognized another problem: the crash barrier was set up for landing from the opposite direction! But again, there was no decision to make. Get the nose gear on the ground and plow ahead! Fortunately, the F-86 snapped the cable without so much as a jerk and rolled on down the runway.

I turned off on a taxiway and brought the plane to a halt, opened the canopy and was unstrapping myself when a jeep with two Chinese soldiers drove up. "Flame-out!", I announced to them, hoping that those words would be understood. They looked at each other and then back at me. One finally muttered something that sounded like "Whey". With that, they started to drive away.

"Halt!", I shouted as I was crawling out of the cockpit. When the jeep stopped I tried some other words, "May-day! Mayday!" That had almost the same effect: a puzzling look back at me, another "Whey" and they started to drive off again.
"Halt!", I shouted again. They seemed to understand that word because they stopped a third time.

By this time I was on the ground and running toward the jeep. They looked a little surprised as I jumped into the back seat and said, "Take me to someone who speaks English!" I'm certain they didn't understand a word that I said, but I am just as certain that they came to the conclusion that they should take me to someone who spoke English because they looked at each other with that same puzzling manner, muttered something in Chinese, and then drove directly to the operations building.

I was ushered in to a Chinese major who spoke fairly good English. I explained the situation and told him that I needed to contact the 44th at Tao-Yuan to advise them that I was safely on the ground and exactly where that was. He said he'd have someone try to "get through" for me, then invited me to sit down and relax. He asked, "Would you like some cookies and milk while you're waiting?"

I really wasn't in the mood for cookies and milk (a double scotch would have been more in order!), but we'd been briefed on Chinese etiquette and I knew it was impolite to refuse an offer such as this. I said, "Yes sir, that would be very nice." In short order, he was back with the cookies and milk. But the second that I took the glass from him, I knew that I had a real problem. It was HOT milk. And if there's anything I can't stad, it's hot milk.

I knew I had to find a way to get that milk down, so I decided to handle it as if it were some foul-tasting medicine. I took a large gulp, swallowing it quickly, then shoved a cookie into my mouth. After a short respite, I followed the same procedure - large gulp, swallow, shove cookies into my mouth. Finally after a tortuous number of repetitions, I had an empty glass and was feeling prud of the fact that, at great sacrifice, I had managed to preserve good Chinese-American relations.

About that time, the major advised me that the phone connection to the 44th had been completed and pointed me to the phone. As I arose, he noticed my empty glass and asked how I liked the cookies and milk. "It was very good.", I lied. "Thank you very much." "Good", he replied, "I will get you some more."

"No!", I almost shouted. The major looked at me in a rather startled manner and I realized that I had some fast talking to do. "It was very good" I explained, "but I am very full and really shouldn't eat any more right now. Perhaps later." He seemed to accept my explanation and led me to the phone. My phone conversation was rather short; a quick summary of what happened and where I was, followed by instructions to stay put until a helicopter arrived to take me back to Tao-Yuan.

I returned to my seat and advised the major that a helicopter would be coming for me. He nodded and we continued to make small talk for short while. Before long, a command car pulled up and a rotund Chinese general emerged, followed by several others. As they approached the door, the entire room snapped to attention and I followed suit. I had no idea who this person was, but he certainly appeared to be someone to be treated with respect, and I did my best to do so.

As we all stood at attention, the general looked around the room and then walked directly toward me. When he reached me, he put his hand on my arm, felt my chest, reached up and felt my neck, all the while saying something in Chinese. My imagination was running wild: Was this some type of Chinese foreplay, God forbid, or the preliminary to a condemnation proceeding? My apprehension was relieved when the major interpreted; "General wants to know if you were hurt?"
"No, sir", I responded "I'm fine!"

More words from the general, interpreted by the major: "General says you should not worry about knocking out the power in this northern section of Formosa." I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was some sort of apology for whatever damage I'd caused. My comment was followed by more words between the major and the general and then interpreted; "You should not worry. We are just happy that you were not injured."
"Thank you, sir!"

With that, the general and his entourage completed their inspection and departed. A short while later, the helicopter arrived and whisked me back to Tao-Yuan. Life was back to normal.


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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