Four Days with the 492nd

by Charles Keil, Royal Air Force

What could be better? A glorious week in July 1954 and the opportunity to spend four days in France. Not sightseeing but as guests of the USAF's 492nd Squadron based at Chaumont about 150 miles south-east of Paris.

I was a pilot with the Royal Air Force's No 26 Squadron, based at Oldenburg in northern Germany, part of the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force. We were equipped with the Sabre Mk 4, an F86E built by Canadair. So 26 Squadron had common ground with the USAF's 492nd; we were both part of the 2ATAF in Europe, were both confronting the Soviet forces during the Cold War, and both flew Sabres - though theirs was the hot F86F version.

In fact, it wasn't simply what the RAF called a jolly' (a pleasure trip). The intention was to demonstrate that the RAF and USAF Sabre squadrons were interactive and capable of reinforcing each other by operating from each other's bases. So after we had enjoyed our four days at USAF Chaumont, pilots and Sabres from the 492nd were welcomed on a reciprocal visit to operate from RAF Oldenburg.

We flew from Oldenburg to Chaumont, a flight of 1 hour 20 minutes, on 26 July, in two four-plane formations, about half an hour apart. Our first four, callsign Inkstain Red, was led by our Squadron Leader Ken Smith. I was his No 2.

To say that our arrival at Chaumont wasn't quite as planned is something of an understatement. Virtually the whole flight was above cloud and for the descent into the Chaumont circuit or pattern, we split into two pairs. Ken Smith led me down through the clag, leaving our second pair, led by Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Ridout, to make a separate descent. All went smoothly on our descent. Once below cloud, the base was quickly identified, we ran in and broke for the landing pattern.

With gear and flaps down and airbrakes extended, everything was going well. Over the runway with speed falling off, I made a smooth touchdown and only then became aware that my leader, some 100 yards ahead of me, had - without any indication to me - opened up and was going round again. Chaumont being an unfamiliar airfield and my fuel state not being abundant, I opted not to follow him but to remain on terra firma. Intriguingly, Ken Smith never revealed why he went round again, or asked me why I didn't.

At the end of the runway (and it turned out to be one helluva long runway - nearly twice the length of Oldenburg), waited a jeep with a sign saying `Follow Me' to the hard stand in front of one of the hangars, where I shut down.

Further embarrassment followed. There before the hangar was a reception committee led by the Base Commander. But understandably they didn't want to begin this official RAF visit by welcoming a junior pilot. Their first objective was to greet our leader, who was still up there in the wild, not-so-blue yonder. So I removed my helmet, climbed out and greeted the ground crew, removed my Mae West, flying overalls and g-suit; then waited for the boss to arrive.

A few minutes later Ken was safely down. More fun followed. Our second pair got separated and couldn't find the field. So there was another delay while we waited for them to arrive. Eventually in they came and we were all introduced to the genial Base Commander and team before posing for a photo with them - three of the RAF pilots still in their flying gear and me in my blue battledress. Then it was on to meeting the pilots of the 492nd and to four large metal bins full of ice and bottles of champagne. The party was underway, and the 492nd certainly knew how to run a party.

The other four 26 Sq Sabres, led by Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey `Wilky' Wilkinson, soon arrived to swell the celebrations. Wilky was an interesting character who had come to 26 Squadron as a Flight Commander after a tour of duty in Korea flying F84s. A brilliant pilot with a keen analytical mind, he went on to become a test pilot before eventually being appointed Chief Inspector of Air Accidents for the British Board of Trade.

To be honest, I don't remember much about the rest of that day.I can say that USAF hospitality was fantastic and a good time was had by all. The next day, we took an envious close-up look at the 492nd's F86Fs with their extended, slat-less wings, 5,910 lb thrust engines and two huge 200-gallon drop tanks. While enjoying a generally higher all round performance than our Mk. 4s, the F86Fs had, of course, a higher stalling speed and were less forgiving at low speed in a turn. While we flew a final landing circuit in our slatted Mk. 4s that was almost a continuous turn, the 492nd flew a more sensible pattern, coming in straight from a mile or so out to touchdown.

Fig 2 shows a photograph taken at the time of our visit to Chaumont of a USAF F86F. It is captioned in my scrapbook that it was the Colonel's personal Sabre and certainly appears to have a special paint scheme.

While being welcomed into the 492nd crew room, we observed the sign over the door saying "Through these portals pass the finest fighter pilots in the world". It was tempting to express our appreciation of the USAF's action in having the sign made and mounted there especially to mark our visit, but discretion is always the better part of valour when you are a guest!

While the RAF and the USAF were flying essentially the same aircraft, the Sabre, many other aspects of our operations were different. 26 Squadron's role was high level interception while, if memory serves me correctly, the 492nd was a fighter-bomber squadron. And USAF flying maps and R/T procedures were different. We were quite envious of the quantity and quality of much of the 492nd support equipment and spares. And the Officers Club proved to be a much more informal place than the RAFs Officers Mess!

The 492nd generously made the RAF pilots honorary members of their squadron and we were all presented with a 492nd badge or patch As befitted a fighter-bomber squadron, it shows an eagle peering down a bombsight while holding a bomb in its claw. Some weeks later, we were to welcome pilots from the 492nd to Oldenburg on a return visit. To mark the occasion, our squadron artist got to work on a special version of the 492nd patch, this time showing the eagle holding a champagne glass in its claw while peering disdainfully into an empty champagne bottle. Much more appropriate!

We in turn presented visiting 492nd pilots with 26 Squadron badges or patches. For the record, our squadron was originally formed in October 1915 from members of the South African Aviation Corps and so took as its emblem the head of the South African gazelle or springbok and the motto - in the Afrikaans language - "N Wagter in die Lug", meaning literally "the watcher in the sky".

We flew a number of sorties from Chaumont without any problems, enjoying the spacious runway and even practised GCA talkdown facilities. But we didn't get to tangle with 492nd Sabres. On one of these sorties I was in a four-ship formation led by Wilky. A man who revelled in the spice of life and grasping opportunities, he took us at low level and high speed over Paris, sightseeing from a different perspective. But there were repercussions. Some months later, back at Oldenburg, a signal from Group HQreported that formal complaints had been lodged about RAF Sabres flying through the Paris Air Traffic Control Zone. The signal went on to say that the RAF had dismissed the complaints because RAF Sabres didn't have the range to overfly Paris from bases in Germany. Whether the powers-that-be had forgotten that RAF Sabres were based at Chaumont for those four days in July 1954 or whether it was a way of getting us off the hook, we'll never know.

After fond farewells, on our return flight from Chaumont to Oldenburg, I flew as No 4. It had been agreed that on that trip we would cruise at altitude in a variety of different formations while Wilky - a first rate photographer - would take a series of pictures. From his Sabre, he would direct us into position before moving into ultra close range to shoot pictures using a 35 mm camera. On some occasions, his Sabre was heavily banked to get a good angle while he held the stick between his knees and the camera in his hands.

When we moved to echelon port formation, making me the one closest to him at the end of the line, while concentrating on keeping station with No 3, I can recall seeing out of the corner of my eye the sky filled with Wilky's Sabre on its side while he shot pictures through the top of the canopy; a mid-air collision seemed a possibility. Yet when that picture was developed and printed, the formation appears to be at quite a respectable distance from the cameraman. The camera does lie!

The picture that Wilky took of the four 26 Sq Sabres in echelon port formation on that trip back from Chaumont was used that year on the 26 Squadron Christmas card and also won first prize in an air-to-air photo competition run by the British magazine "Aeronautics". As I write a framed print of that four-ship formation hangs before me on my study wall alongside the 492nd squadron patch - constant reminders of four wonderful days with the 492nd at Chaumont.

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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