by Dan McGrath
In the middle of a wretched winter in 1959, hard on the Missouri River at Sioux City AB, Iowa, flying the all-weather F-86L at night would probably classify as a dangerous challenge to the casual observer. But for the young pilots in the 14th FIS, it was what we did every day. Breaking 100 and 1/4 was a routine operation, but one that dictated that you and your airplane quickly became one. You were essentially a middleman connecting the radar system to the controls. And you soon developed a sense of confidence that your partner-ship was effective, efficient, and SAFE.
Hence, I launched one December night leading two other Sabres in the normal 5 mile in-trail radar formation. The fact that my TACAN was inoperative during the ground check was only a minor problem. The weather was basically VFR in the vicinity. In any case, we'd be under GCI control, so getting back home wasn't given a second thought.
Another slight `hiccup' occurred when the GCI controller repeated his request for my IFF squawk. After I recycled the IFF a couple of times, it was apparent that it was inoperative. Because ADC rules dictated that the Flight Lead have an operating IFF, I reluctantly broke out of the practice intercept and #2 took over Lead.
With nothing better to do, I motored around the area for awhile to burn off fuel before re-turning to Sioux City. The F-86L was limited to about 45 minutes worth of JP-4 on intercept missions, so this process didn't take long. When it was time to recover, I spotted the `glowing lights of the city', and headed home. I planned to land VFR, and although technically still under GCI control, I didn't ask for recovery instructions.
When I arrived over the `lights', I told GCI that I "was above Sioux City", and indicated my in-tent to recover at the base some 5 miles south. Then came the ominous words from another F-86 (as it turned out the Squadron Safety Officer) : "If you see the lights, you're not over Sioux City! Sioux City's under heavy clouds! Over?!"
"So now what?", I thought. "I can't be lost. I'll just get a TACAN bearing. Whoops, no TACAN. OK, I'll just get a GCI fix. Whoops, no IFF either!" I checked with GCI and asked for a skin paint. But they had no idea where to look so that didn't work either. In fact, it merely made two of us who now had absolutely no idea where I was!
But I remained confident that there was no problem, for I could definitely see the lights of Lincoln, Nebraska, some 75 miles to the south. I'd surely be able to land at Lincoln. By now, the 1100 pounds of fuel remaining made that option somewhat tenuous. But seeing no alter-native, I reported my plans to GCI and headed south.
"Don't do that!", came the pleading voice of the Squadron Safety Officer, probably anticipating how he was going to report a flamed out F-86L crashing on the way to Lincoln. Just at that moment, the blinking lights of a descending Sabre flashed by going north. "Aha!", I thought, "If that's no. 2, I can follow them home."
Sure enough, another airplane appeared in trail with the first. I immediately pulled a 180 and joined up on a most-startled squadron mate. They were on a different frequency so I couldn't make radio contact, but there was no way he was going to lose me. I probably should have tried Guard Channel, but we had strict instruction not to use Guard except in an emergency. In this case, I was safely joined up. And making a weather approach on the wing of an-other F-86 was easy. So, with that bit of dumb luck, there was no emergency.
On the ground, a somewhat flustered #3, one of the new guys, was wondering who the hell had flown his wing home without saying a word. At the same time, the Squadron safety Officer, having counted noses, was on his way to the Club for a drink, where he found me trying to avoid talking about the jerk who al-most got lost that night. ALMOST!
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