A Crew Chief's Recollecton

by Norm Kalow

I entered the United States Air Force immediately after high school, completed the aircraft and engine mechanic's training course at Sheppard Field, Texas, and joined the Fourth Fighter Group at Langley Field, Virginia. My tour with the Fourth was from July 1950 until January 1952. During that time, we were equipped with the North American F-86A-5 Sabre. Later we received a few "E" models, but the "-3" leading edge modification did not occur during my tour. I was with the original contingent that shipped over from the States in November 1950. We were initially located at Johnson Air Base near Tokyo, Japan, and we were also the last from the initial group to return to the States. Approximately half of our personnel came over by transport aircraft via Alaska across the Great Circle Route. The remainder came by aircraft carrier with the Sabres, courtesy of the United States Navy. It was tough duty during the time I was with the Fourth, both stateside and overseas, with little time off and significant responsibilities. Rear echelon maintenance on our Sabres was performed at Johnson Air Base by the Fourth's maintenance squadron. Two combat squadrons were in Korea at K-13 (Suwon) and K-14 Kimpo, near (Seoul) while one was stationed at Johnson. Periodically the squadrons in Korea rotated back to Japan.


Generally, the Sabre was a great aircraft. Most repairs were easy as compared to reciprocating engine aircraft (except for a few items, such as canopy seals), and we experienced minimal servicing problems at the primitive air fields and facilities in Korea. As an example, two of us could change an engine, including the engine's run-up, at a normal working pace in under an hour with few tools. All a good crew chief needed was a screwdriver and a pair of waterpump pliers, and we could fix 90% of the problems! This indicates an outstanding design and engineering effort on the F-86 by North American Aviation.

The Sabre was a "crew chief's dream" from a maintenance standpoint, with our only criteria being to "keep 'em flying". Inactivity was bad for the Sabre. The less it flew, the more minor problems the F86 had.

Initially at Johnson Air Base, shortly after we brought the Sabres up to flight status after the rigors of the ocean crossing from California, many small problems surfaced. Foremost was the fuel level transmitters in the wing cells. To change them required draining the fuel and dropping the leading edge slats. This was a time consuming procedure, but not particularly difficult. After the Sabres got to Korea and their flying increased, many other problems eliminated themselves.

One major problem I recall was the rupturing of a rubber membrane in the engine fuel flow control valve. True to Murphy's Law, this was usually discovered after the last flight of the day when we were checking the engine oil reservoir. Upon removing the cap, a mixture of JP-1 fuel and oil would gush out, accompanied by an oath from a crew chief! Repairs consisted of pulling the engine, replacing the fuel flow control valve, and then putting everything back together. But we found that the attention to the maintenance and repair function was extremely well thought out in the Sabre by its designers and engineers, such as in the use of electrical "cannon" plugs, quick disconnect hydraulic lines, and simple mechanical methods for securing components. As a further example, the mounting of the J47 jet engine was secured by two ball and sockets and a forward cross pin. Elegant!

The worst repair I recall in Korea was replacing the Sabre's canopy seal as it was glued into a channel. It had to be ripped out and scraped, a new seal glued in its place, and then flight tested by a pilot at altitude. The seal was hollow inside and inflated by engine compressor bleed air to ensure a tight seal. It required a "few trial and error" gluing sessions to get it right.

For such a comparatively complex aircraft (for its time), the Sabre was amazingly trouble free. This also included its systems, such as the hydraulics, the electricals and so forth.

The Sabre had a small "footprint", and due to its weight, if it went off the concrete or pierced steel planking, it got stuck and required a small tractor to be pulled back to solid footing. But thanks to the hydraulic power steering in the nose gear, the pilot usually had good control when "driving" the Sabre on the ground.

My impression of the Sabre forty years later is of a solid, well-designed, no nonsense airplane, with a characteristic beauty and form all its own. On the ground or in flight, with droptanks or "clean", the F-86 looked "classy". I can still remember watching a returning flight of four Sabres in a trailing formation making a low pass over the field and peeling off, one by one, into the final landing circle. Beautiful! And in its landing attitude a semi-stall, nose-high configuration; it looked like no other jet fighter we had at our base. The Sabre was the "cock of the walk", and it landed like it darn well knew it!

All in all, the Sabre was docile, but if we were careless, it would "bite". A case in point was of a young crew chief; cocky, slightly careless, and sometimes unheeding of advice. In early 1951, an advance contingent of Sabres was at K-14 (Kimpo), Korea. A Sabre's engine was run up on the flight line when the young man walked in front of the air intake duct. He was instantly sucked in and rammed through twelve feet of Intake duct to the engine where the engine screens stopped him. He was dead by the time the engine was shut down and he was pulled out.

We were always warned about the inherent dangers of the nose intake, and we treated it with great respect. But there was no problem with the Sabre's exhaust. People would be knocked down if they got too close, but not burned or seriously hurt. The local Koreans hired to sweep our taxi ways sometimes would not stay clear of the jet exhausts, and we periodically saw Koreans tumbling rear over tea kettle with their white clothes flying if they did not respect the Sabre's powerful exhaust.

A more serious problem was making sure that saboteurs did not throw sand or gravel into our Sabres' intake ducts. We heard they were paid a small sum by the "other side" to do this. This would cause serious engine problems if they were successful.

Speaking of engines, the Sabre's J47 jet engine required more care in "firing up" than say the F-80 Shooting Star, or else a "hot start" resulted, with a large tongue of flame shooting out the tailpipe. This could ruin the engine. We crew chiefs had to be on the ball whenever we ran the engines up, but fortunately the learning curve was not excessively long. As I recall, during engine startup, as the r.p.m. came up, careful manipulation of the throttle and a watchful eye on the fuel pressure gauge until the tailpipe temperature gauge "came alive" resulted in a safe, smooth startup. The key point was a controlled low fuel pressure reading via the throttle, or else we could sizzle someone's shorts a hundred feet away with the flame blast!

The Sabre was rugged, and a gear up landing was usually repairable. I recall one new pilot, just over from the States, who landed a new Sabre with its gear up. He was just forgetful. He said he could not hear the tower warning him on the radio because of a loud noise in the cockpit. It was his gear up warnmg horn! The crew chief of that Sabre, a corporal, had the pilot, a first lieutenant, as his helper until that plane was repaired!



Place: Andrews Mr Force Base, Washington, D.C.
Time: Summer 1950

Probably the most bizarre accident the Fourth ever had occurred shortly after I joined. Three Sabres went up on a clear, sunny day for a training mission and never returned! The next day we learned the facts, and they were not very pleasant!

It seems the three were returning to the base (Andrews AFB) in a three ship "V" formation. The leader (a first lieutenant) pulled his two wingmen (both second lieutenants) in close so that the formation could let down through a thin (he thought) cloud deck. While the weather was clear at Andrews, they were letting down near Quantico, about 20 miles away. He must have misread his altimeter, because the "cloud deck" was actually a tin fog layer over the Potomac River area, and they entered the soup at probably not more than 500 feet altitude. (Likely, the leader thought they were at 5,000 feet). They were in a left turn, and the right wingman shortly observed two "explosions" - the first two F-86s hitting the water. The next thing he knew, he was flying along in a badly damaged Sabre. He had "skipped" off the water! His compass was inoperative, and he was unable to find his way home, eventually bellying-in on a northern Virginia farm. He was badly injured, but recovered, and later flew in the Korean War. The other two pilots were killed on impact.

Place: K-13 (Suwon), Korea
Time: Summer 1951

A Sabre with battle damage returned from MiG Alley but could not lower its landing gear. This was not a major problem as a gear up landing was fairly routine. As the F-86 landed, a group of scared Koreans ran across the runway, just ahead of the Sabre. The pilot shoved the throttle forward, the engine increased its thrust, and the Sabre leapfrogged over the Koreans and touched down again for a safe landing! it was the slickest bit of piloting we saw in a long time!

Place: K-13 (Suwon), Korea
Time: Summer 1951

Power loss was a deadly condition as I witnessed it, but fortunately it was an infrequent occurrence. Our Sabres took off "side by side". On this particular day, a pair was just airborne and about a hundred feet up when one Sabre "staggered" due to an unexplained power loss. The pilot reacted quickly by dropping his external fuel tanks and lowering the nose to maintain his airspeed. His luck and his altitude ran out simultaneously as he crashed into an elevated rice paddy embankment perpendicular to his flight path. The centrally mounted jet engine broke loose upon impact, came forward and crushed the pilot. The Sabre did not burn (this rarely happened, thanks to the low volatility of our JP-l jet fuel), but the F-866 was a total loss as was its pilot.

Norm Kalow left the Air Force after his enlistment. He worked briefly in the aviation industry and then utilized the GI Bill to enter the engineering profession. He retired after a long career in that field. Norm is now involved with writing ahout his expenences in Korea, providing assistance to authors, and contacting friends from the Korean War era.

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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