The Air Guard's only official jet acrobatic team

by Gobel James

How it began: In 1953, Lt.Col. Walt Williams, Commander of the Colorado Air Guard's 120th Fighter Squadron, and three squadron pilots, put together an informal acrobatic team, flying the F-80C that had recently replaced the unit's F-51's.

The unofficial team consisted of Lt.Col. Williams - Lead; Maj. Ranger Curran - Right Wing, A.F. Advisor to the 120th, had previously flown with the Alaskan Air Command acrobatic team, the Arctic Gladiators; Maj. Warren Harvey - Left Wing, a full time Air Guard technician; and Lt. Dick Hueholt - Slot. All had flown combat in Korea. No additional funding was available, so all expenses came out of the 140th Fighter Wing's budget. Lacking any funding for special uniforms, the team members dyed their flight suits black and bought matching black baseball caps.

The Minute Men began putting on shows locally and later, as their fame spread, began performing outside of Colorado. In the fall of 1956, Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles was in the audience when the team performed at an air show in Spokane, Washington. It may have been a coincidence, but, a few days later the Minute Men team was declared the official "Jet Precision Demonstration Team for the Air National Guard of the United States". By then, the team of `weekend warriors' had added a Solo aircraft flown by Wynn Coomer, a United Airlines Pilot. Capt. Bob Cherry, a Guard technician had replaced Major Harvey at left Wing, and Capt. John Ferrier, also a United Airlines pilot, had replaced Lt. Hueholt in the Slot.

After the Minute Men became the official team for the Air Guard, scheduling was handled by Air National Guard Headquarters in Washington D. C. The workload immediately increased and the team performed at more than 38 official airshows the following year (1957). In mid-1957, Maj. Curran, the only active duty officer to ever fly with the Minute Men, was transferred and replaced at Right Wing by Lt. Bo Odle, a full time Air Guard technician.

In early 1958, the team received 7 F-86F's. And not just any F-86F Sabres. These were the remaining F-86F-2 Sabres that had flown the GUNVAL combat tests in Korea. They were experimentally fitted with four T-160 20mm cannons (M39 operational designation) that would equip the F-86H. As with most other jet acrobatic teams, the armament was removed and the aircraft were rebalanced with ballast in the nose. The fire control system was removed and smoke tanks and piping were added within the rear fuselage. But otherwise they were standard F-86F Sabres.

After a brief transition period, the team put on its first show in the Sabre at Jacksonville, Florida. During that year, the Minute Men performed at approximately 40 airshows throughout the United States. They were often joined by the inimitable acrobatic pilot, Bob Hoover, who would perform his solo act using one of the team's aircraft.

On June 7, 1958, the team suffered its only accident while performing at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, before a group of West Point cadets. The team had just completed the rollout from the bomb-burst maneuver when the Slot man's aircraft, flown by Capt. John Ferrier, began a rolling high angle descent toward the small town of Fairborn, Ohio, on the edge of Patterson Field. The aircraft impacted in a small clearing in the midst of 4 houses. A woman and several children were knocked to the ground but no one was injured, with the exception of Capt. Ferrier. He was killed upon impact. It was determined that a flight control malfunction caused the crash. Based on eye witness accounts, although he had ample altitude to eject, Capt. Ferrier stayed with the aircraft and used his limited control to guide it into the open area. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for that courageous act.

Captain Ferrier was replaced in the slot position by Lt. Gobel James, an aeronautical engineering student at the University of Colorado,who'd been flying one of the Solo positions. Capt. Ron Jankovsky, a United Airlines pilot, also joined the team as a solo pilot.

In early 1959, Lt.Col. Williams left the team to become Wing Commander of the Colorado ANG. He was replaced as team leader by the Left Wingman, Capt. Cherry. Lt. John France, a law student at Denver University, who had joined as a Solo pilot a month before, moved to the Left Wing.

In May of 1959, the Minute Men were informed that, for budgetary reasons, the team would be disbanded. However, the team was very nearly disbanded earlier than planned. They were scheduled to put on a show at Kelly AFB. The distance from Denver to Kelly was within a clean Sabre's range. Thus, they elected to make the trip without external tanks. The weather at Kelly was not forecast to be great, but was expected to be reasonable. When they arrived over San Antonio, the weather was lower than expected and Randolph AFB was worse. Fuel soon became an issue. Maj. Cherry was leading and Col. Williams had gone along as the Solo because the regular Solo pilot, Wynn Coomer, was scheduled to fly a trip for United Airlines.

Cherry started a 5 ship VOR approach and had no sooner entered the tops of the clouds when his VOR failed. He called Col. Williams and told him that he would have to take over the letdown. Williams didn't have VOR in his aircraft and there ensued a flurry of activity of aircraft changing positions and letdown books flying around Williams cockpit, as he looked for the ADF letdown sheet. As the formation was making the turn to GCA final approach, the controller called and said, "Redeye, be advised that we have lost you." Col Williams replied, "Roger, if you don't pick us up, give me a bailout heading for 5 aircraft!"

The Slot man had declared emergency fuel during descent and all the other aircraft were nervously low. The weather was now 100 feet and 1/4 mile visibility, with rain. Happily, a few seconds later, GCA picked up the aircraft and guided them in for a 5 ship landing. All fighter pilots have experienced the feeling of relief that came over each of us as we touched down and great plumes of water spewed up from all 5 aircraft. The Slot man flamed out on engine runup before shutdown and each of the other aircraft had less than two minutes fuel remaining. Just another routine day in the life of a fighter pilot.

The team's last performance was at Grand Junction, Colorado, on July 10, 1959. The following month, sadly, the Sabres were ferried to the boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB, thus ending the last official U.S. demonstration team to fly the F-86 Sabre.

No discussion of the Minute Men would be complete without mentioning Ed Mack Miller, a United Airlines Instructor Pilot who was the team's narrator and publicity officer; Bill Koger, a Denver attorney who was the team's intrepid support pilot and alternate narrator who flew the team's aging C-47 from Alaska to Panama and throughout the continental U.S. without a single incident; and, the expert and totally dedicated crewchiefs who worked many 18 hour days to insure that enough Sabres were always available for every show.

During its brief existence, the Minute Men performed in 47 states, as well as Hawaii (using the Hawaiian Guard's F80C's), Alaska, Nicaragua, and Panama, as well as impromptu shows at Guatamala City, Mexico City, and Kingston, Jamaica.

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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