Editors Note: The following story by Ed Buerckholtz the presideht of Spirit Fighter Inc. in Chesterfield, Missouri (near St. Louis), is the first of several articles discussing the refurbishinig of their ultra-rare F-86H to flying status. Sabre Jet Classics will folow this story and watch as thieir Sabre, serial number 53-1250, progresses from a technical school training airframe back to a first-rate restored jet fighter.
Some background on "250" is in order before Ed begins his discussion. 53-1250 last flew with the Maryland Air National guard, which is based at Martin Airport in East Baltimore. In December 1957, Maryland's 104th Fighter Interceptor Squadron converted from the F-86E to F-86Hs, the ultimate fighter-bomber model of the Sabre Jet and the last of the Sabre line. Maryland eventually flew 68,482 hours in F-86H Sabres. In April 1970, Maryland began replacing its vintaage Sabres with new A-37B Dragonfly fighter-bombers. By August 4,1970, Maryland's last F-86H and also the active military's last incidentally) departed Martin Airport for retirement to gate guardain duties at Seymore Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.
53-1250 is one of the luckiest surviving F-86Hs. It was manufactured in 1953 but held in storage until Januaary 1955 when it was accepted by the Air Force. It first served with the 117th Fighter Group at Atlantic City, New Jersey from 1955 to 1962. Until 1967, it was with the 156th Tactical Fighter Group at Martin Airport. Later that year. However, it was called to active at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico with the 175th. In January 1969, it went home again to Baltimore when the unit returned.
On May 28, 1970, Lieutenant Colonel Josheph; Radoci of the MD ANG flew 250 on its last mission, a one-way trip to the Greater Rockford Airport in Illinois. It had 2,765.6 airframe hours by this time. Soon after, 250 went on the inventory of the Rock Valley College's Department of Aviation Maintenance Technology as part of their aviation mechanic program.
By 1987, the college determined that 53-1250 was an excess aircraft and they considered trading the rare Sabre for a newer, but peferably civilian, aircraft. And with this lengthy introduction completed, we now turn the story of 53-1250 over to Ed and his excellent restoration team at Spirit Fighters.
The airport at Rockford, Illinois is a breezy place most of the time, but as I skated down the slippery taxiway on cold and snow covered evening in the mid-seventies in a wailing FH227, the place looked like a corner of Siberia that had been rejected for lack of interest. I did note, however, a familiar shape softened by the snow and gloom off to the east side. I muttered to myself, "Geez, a Sabre! I wonder what idiot owns that?!" Little did I know that on day, I would be the "idiot" who would be involved in a tremendous undertaking aimed at bringing that very machine back to flying status.
Our adventure with the Rock Valley College Sabre began in earnest when Leroy Keener, a friend, pilot, mechanic and world traveler, saw the F-86H in 1989. He returned home and said, I saw a pretty good looking Sabre at Rockford. It belongs to a tech school. Let's check it outl" I recalled the snowy lump I saw several years before, and so I remarked, "I've seen that thing, Lee. Forget it ! You can't get anything like that from a school. It's imposlible."
"You might say that," Lee rejoined, "and you may be right, but you won't really know unless you try!" And so Spirit Fighters began trying to obtain the forlorn F-86H.
We went to the college to see the airplane. Professor Jim Froemming was kind to us. He handed us a copy of the informatiun package that the school had prepared for the half dozen "fools" who came every year looking for Sabre items. The data pack contained a Winter l987 issue of Warbirds International That included a letter Jim had written describing their aircraft. Discouragingly prominent in his article was the statement, "It cannot be certified fur flight." Jim, however, was sympathetic. "Too bad," he said. "we really don't use it much anyore, and the FAA is urging us to get something more modem.
To this I quickly responded, "What would you like to have instead?" Jim thought for a moment. Then he said, "Oh, a nice King Air would suit our needs. Yes, indeed!" We recovered weII. We then thanked Jim, got on our horses and left town.
This event soon started a fascinating series of events. When I returned home, I told our story to several friends. Most simply said, "I could have told you that. What a waste!" But one friend, Bob Morgenthaker, who has been very successful in aviation, said, "Sometimes you have to motivate people, know what I mean? Let's form a company and buy a King Air." That scared me! But then along came Butch Glessman another successful aviation entrepreneur, and we did just that. Not long after, we were looking at a King Air 90 sitting on our ramp. It certainly lightened our hip pockets, if not our hearts!
Things began to happen in late 1990. We went to Rockford and brought some college officials back to St. Louis for lunch. On the ramp, we gestured casually over our shoulders to them and said," "There's your plane!" They looked at the King Air, and then us. We then said, "We bought it for you, and we want to trade." They looked at the King Air more closely this time as their feet were already walking in that direction.
It took another year, but the deal was completed. Obtaining the F-86H involved government agencies we had never dealt with, eocuments we had never heard of, members of Congress, administrators, and lawyers daunting in their numbers and requirements, but we did it. Thjat alone is a story. And then finally, one day in March 1991, a trailer from Ben Nattress'Worldwide Aaircraft Recovery arrived at our hme field, The Spirit of St. Louis Airp;ort. A new phase in the battle to fly 250 again was beginning....
(To Be Continued)
Note: Spirit Fighters is always looking for F-86H parts. Some items are missing from their Sabre, but others have extras. If you can help, please call Spirit Fighters at (314) 532-2707, or Fax at (314) 532-1486.
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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