By Neil Fossum

In early 1954, being a Second Lieutenant and flying the F-86F-30 Sabre with the 3596th (Cadillac) Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base was about as close to being born under the right star as one could get! Our squadron was loaded with Korean War veterans and several aces, and we "students" spent much of our time mimicking them and wondering how theywere getting so many holes in the rag target (we later learned how!). And while our civilian buddies were home listening to Nat King Cole sing "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable" on the radio, we were at the watering hole learning to sing "Sammy Small" and "Nellie Darling".

Because our instructors were our flight leaders on our training flights, we had many examples of leadership from which to learn. One of our flight leaders in particular was a man I will never forget. He set the standard for leadership I have tried to follow from then on. His name was First Lieutenant Sam Johnson.

One day, our flight of four Sabres was to strike a simulated convoy located on the range north of Nellis. We were armed with .50 caliber ammo and smoke bombs. Sam briefed us and said our call sign for that mission would be Robin Flight. He said our first pass would be a bombing run against some tanks in the area, and then we would strafe several trenches. He would also call out the remaining targets in the air for us.

We took off and got clearance into the range. Sam, as Robin Lead, went in first. He was followed by Number Two Sabre, then me, and finally Number Four. Sam pulled off our target and watched me hit (so he said) three of the four tanks. As I pulled up, I saw Sam go in for his strafing run on the trenches. His flight path looked like a Split-S. As he pulled over the top and came down, I did not feel we had enough altitude, and so I took my element up another few hundred feet. We then heard Sam call, "Robin, don 't come in on this pass." It was clear he was pulling all the g's he could handle while trying to clear the desert floor. I responded, "Number Three has enough altitude," and Sam grunted, "Okay." I was pulling as hard as I could also to clear the ground, but I did manage to spray a bunch of .50 calibre bullets for what must have been the world's worst example of shooting. I saw that Sam made it alright, but it must have been close judging by the cloud of dust he created with his jetwash. But we all knew that somehow Sam had found the time to warn us when he thought he himself was not going to make it.

We have all seen many forms of leadership, but this outstanding example has remained with me over the last 38 years. I have not seen Robin Lead in many years, and I know that our chances of ever flying together have probably passed, but if that opportunity would ever arrive again someday, I will be ready to "Play it again, Sam," and by the way, thanks.

Since writing this story, Neil has leamed that Sam Johnson flew the slot position with the Thunderbirds from March 1957 to October 1958. He was also a POW in Vielnam. Today, Sam Johnson is a Congressman from Piano, Texas. Sam Is also a member of our Sabre Society.

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.

Return to Classics Page