by David WensleyIn November 1957, and fresh from the all-weather school at Moody AFB, I was assigned to the 324th FIS at Westover AFB. We were flying F-86Ls. Born and raised in Miami, I'd never witnessed a snowstorm until my first flight at Westover, a `get-acquainted with the local area' flight. A rapidly darkening sky and steadily decreasing visibility signaled the arrival of a severe storm front, a snow storm! Flying VFR, I kept the field in sight and made two reports of the approaching storm while awaiting landing approval.
I watched as a flight of four 324th F-86s was cleared for takeoff and then made my GCA approach, touching down as snowflakes as big as ping-pong balls were streaking across the canopy. Within minutes the storm had arrived in force and the other four F-86s were ordered to return to base.Three landed successfully, but the GCA radar went down just as the last aircraft was on final.
Several of us assembled outside the flight shack in the blinding snowstorm listening as Lt. Stewart made several unsuccessful landing attempts and go-arounds. Suddenly, the alternating whine and roar of his engine stopped! As they say, the silence was deafening. We anxiously awaited any news, expecting the worse. After about a half hour, our hero walked into the flight shack displaying a very large grin. He'd safely ejected and his aircraft had made an unceremonious crash into the city dump just beyond the base fence.
Not long after, our companion squadron, the 337th FIS, received the new F-104A Starfighter. We were more than jealous, but we were soon transferred to USAFE and assigned as a tenant squadron on the SAC base at Sidi Slimane, Morocco. At least we wouldn't have to be confronted by '104 jocks at the 0-Club anymore.
The 324th received F-86Ds transported by ship from New Orleans to Brindisi, Italy. All of us `new guys' were eager to get a chance to ferry one to Morocco but the assignments went to the more experienced - "You can't go unless you've been!" was a favorite expression amoung us junior troops.
We quickly learned that `2nd class citizen' was an appropriate term for a `Tenant Squadron' on a SAC base. We were allocated a group of quonset huts to operate from, left over from a day fighter squadron that had been there since 1953 but were now abandoned. The base provided paint, some plywood and tools, but refurbishment was left up to us. Our bachelor/unaccompanied quarters were in WW2 Dallas Huts - square plywood boxes with tar roofs that attracted heat like ants to a picnic. Even coming from Florida, I'd never experienced heat like this - 120 in the shade and no shade!
Each `Dallas Palace' housed 4 men, with foot lockers and small wardrobe closets, if you could scrounge them - but NO air conditioning. Dozens of stray cats, acquired by previous tenants to combat the rats and mice, wandered in and out at will. The latrine was a couple of hundred feet away - just outside the practical range if you acquired the Moroccan version of the `Mexican Turistas', which everyone eventually did.
SAC B-47 pilots, `Reflexing' from Homestead AFB in Florida, enjoyed the comforts of cool `cement flat top' apartments and toured the base in new Ford station wagons, one per crew. Our squadron had 2 `occasionally serviceable' jeeps assembled from junkyard parts.
The Officers Mess was segregated into two sections by a wood lattice wall, fighter pilots on one side, SAC on the other. We helped ourselves in typical cafeteria style, while SAC crews had Moroccan waiters and chose their meals from menus. We sat at picnic tables while the SAC crews had tables with checkered tablecloths and flowers. Fortunately, there were no discriminatory rules in the 0-Club, although there should have been considering the trouble we caused on a nightly basis.
The differences in treatment were minor compared to our problems with aircraft maintenance. We were consistently short on parts, and behind the curve on repairs, but somehow, the ground crews were usually able to keep us airborne. Surprisingly, one of the parts were routinely short of was bulbs for our navigational lights. Some nights the crew chief would stop at each aircraft and offer one or two bulbs to be installed on wing tips or fuselage - our choice!
This sounds like a tale of `The Forgotten Squadron', but in reality, it was a great squadron to be part of. The pilot ranks were packed with some of the Air Force's finest, including Capt. Cecil Foster (9 MiGs): George Dunn (3 MiGs); Freddie Hutchins from the Tuscagee Airmen; Robert Chapman, who finished his career as a B/G; and Jay Edwards, who finished as a Major General anbd head of Logistics Command.
Enthusiasm and pride in our flying skills remained high even though there was a sense of detachment and isolation to this remote desert outpost. I have no exciting combat experiences to report from this period, although there was an unending stream of incidents, some humorous, some tragic, that enriched my life in those days and created memories I will always treasure, including these few.
The closest we came to serious action was in the Lebanon Crisis of 1958, when US Marines were `invited' to land on a beach near Beirut to put an end to the riots and unrest that threatened the nation. They stayed for 4 months until reasonable stability returned. Meanwhile, we were on continuous alert in case the situation escalated. Bachelor and unaccompanied pilots like me, pulled the bulk of this duty, living in flight suits literally 24 hours a day.
I mentioned the `Turistas' that many of us experienced on almost a daily basis. My flight commander and wonderful friend, Alvie Gapp, who was subsequently killed in Vietnam, had avoided this displeasure for months. One evening as we walked down the flightline to our aircraft, Alvie asked: "What does it feel like when it starts?" Realizing he must have some symptoms, I advised him to return to the flight shack immediately, but he refused. As he stretched to hoist himself into the cockpit, I heard him exclaim "Oh sh—!", then "Oh well, too late now. Let's go!"
I had the pleasure of flying a few missions with Jay Edwards, one of the finest officers and gentlemen I ever met. In the Winter of '58, we flew two aircraft to the Fiat facility in Torino, Italy for IRAN. Enroute we stopped at Zaragoza, Spain and Chateauroux, France. My aircraft was in bad shape as the inspection panel on the right forward fuselage flew away in a violent storm during the stopover at Chateauroux. I'd stashed it above the rocket rack overnight, which turned out to be a bad idea.
Then taxiing out, my artificial horizon went haywire and I stuck my finger in the 110v fuse holder trying to replace the fuse (Ouch!). Once airborne, one drop tank wouldn't feed so I was short on fuel, untrimmed, experiencing increased drag, and burning fuel at a much higher rate than Jay.
We'd waited until predicted weather at Torino had improved. However, arriving over Torino, the `high scattered' clouds had turned into a solid cloud cover. We orbited the area for minutes that seemed like hours until Jay finally raised ground control and received per-mission to make our penetration. We broke out from a GCA approach at about 2-300 feet and landed amid light snow dusting the runway. I barely made it to the tarmac on my remaining fuel. Later I asked Jay what would've happened if he'd decided to make a go-around? He simply said; "You'd have been SOL!"
One night, acting as a target aircraft, Lt. Butler suffered an engine failure in a T-Bird, and ejected over a remote mountain area. The T-Bird crashed on a mountain side and started a small brush fire. Butler was `captured' by some Berber tribesmen and held prisoner because of the damages he'd caused. A ransom was paid, about $65, and a rescue helicopter picked him up. We all agreed he was worth at least that.
Civilian life has had its share of exciting moments, great experiences, risks, and rewards, but nothing compares to the intensity and richness of squadron life shared with dedicated, skilled, and motivated comrades, whose loyalty and commitment are never in question. I'm more proud of my time spent with them than of any other
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