John is cunently the Chief of Quality Assurance for the 52nd FW at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany He flies the F4-G primarily as a functional check flight pilot. John has about 2,425 hours of A-37 time, 700 in the AC-47 and 1,400 hours in the F4-C/D/E/ G and RF plus other hours in many other airplanes, including a T-6 with the Domincan Republic who presented John with honorary wings from their air force.
In fall 1983, I was sent to Honduras to assist their A-37 Dragonfly squadron during one of the "Ahuas Tara" exercises. Our task was to introduce close air support training with the USAF O-2 FACs (forward air controllers) from Panama to the Fuerza Aeria Honduras (Fall) (the Honduran Air Force). Working with an airborne FAC was new to the FAH, and the communication, command and control links with their ground forces needed to he developed.
After meeting with the FAH Director of Operations, the A-37 squadron and the SouthCom staff, I convinced our Wing Cormmander and the Tactical Air Command project officer that we needed to give them our best people and effort because some previous assistance teams had unfortunately raised some credibility issues.
The reason I was selected for the project was because I had 400 combat missions in the A-37 in Southeast Asia and was in charge of the OA-37 formal training for the aircraft at the time. I picked Captain (now LTC) Blake Thomas to go with me on the team. Blake was picked because he had been an instructor pilot in international undergraduate pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base and had also been in the initial F-15 cadre at Soesterberg, NL, and he was immensely perceptive. This means that when I told him they had F-86s sitting on their ramp, he would have killed for the chance to go with me!
During the time we were in San Pedro Sula, we also helped upgrade two of their pilots to instructor status in the A-37, and we spent countless hours teaching academics on everything from general airmanship, aircraft systems knowledge, and tactics to our most gracious hosts. As we worked and played together with the Hondurans, a positive bond grew. What we showed them about our airplane skills was returned to us on their soccer field; and man, they were good!
We could not hide our desire to get our hands on their F-86s from the first day we arrived! We had no idea that we would ever be able to do anything but wish for a chance to fly them. They had Canadair Mk.3 (F-86E) models that had belonged to the Venezuelans. They had been through an IRAN (Inspection and Repair As Necessary) and taken back to zero time by the Venezuelan Air Force. When we flew them they had between 700-900 hours.
In early December 1983, Captain Jose A. San Martin, their Ops officer, told us that our reward for our hard work was a chance to fly their Sabres!!! So here we were, studying the Sabre Dash 1, sitting by the pool and tennis courts at the luxury hotel, Copant! Sula, sipping cervezas, and saying, This is the life!!" To pass their fifty question general knowledge test, I translated their questions into english and Blake looked up the answers. We spent hours doing cockpit familiarization, fervently fondling every switch, lever and handle! The crew chiefs went through the engine start and ground checks with us. Day Two was another engine start, practice taxi, engine runup with emergency fuel sytem checks, and a highspeed abort on the runway. It was like going hack in history, except for the fact that I had flown Gooneybird gunships as a Second Leutenant, and the vintage aircraft layout made me feel at home. The big difference was the Sabre had the correct number of chairs in it and was a fighter!
The vivid memory of being too excited to sleep the night before we were to flyour first Sabre will always stay with me. This is a guy who had two combat tours and over 3,500 hours of flying time. Our first sortie was a generic aircraft handling, bea-p-the-pattern ride. It seemed a lot like the A-37 as far as getting off the ground and accelerating, but it watered my eyes once the Sabre got going. I rememher dropping the nose, quickly getting 500 knots, and laughing as Iwatched my chase instructor pilot not wanting to follow me through a loop. I had trouble seeing to land while trying to look around that gigantic smile on my face! Touch down, short aerobrake, duck the head and open the canopy to help slow down. What a kick!
The next few sorties were formation work with some simulated close air support. One thing that really sticks in my memory was pulling the lever to charge the .50 caliber machine guns. I was very disciplined about pulling hard and holding the lever as directed, but I did not know what to expect. What a manly sound, that "chunk-a-chunk" six times, as the arming bolts slammed into position. We first strafed rocks in the ocean off a small uninhabited island. This was to develop a feel for sighting and ranging.
My last sortie in the F-86 was a two-versus-two which was flown between 10,000 and 25,000 feet directly over the base. The base commander and Blake were the first element, and San Martin and I were their adversary. We took reciprocal radials off the VRTAC navigation station for three nautical miles from theVOTAC which had us meeting with roughly a five mile split. I knew San Martin and I had the advantage because Blake was flying as a wingman and his leader just was not as aggressive as the rest. In the split over the VORTAC, I climbed into our briefed altitude block. The sun angle was neutral for both elements, but because Blake was dividing his time flying good fighting wing position, I picked up their two ship first. Using an altitude advantage and lead turn, we were able to saddle up into a guns tracking position by 270 degrees of turn. Not great, but for my first BFM (basic flight maneuvers) in the airplane, I was thrilled, and I knew Blake was swearing! Later he would make me pay for that when we were developing a defensive maneuver training program for the OA-37, but at the time, being able to gun a hotshot F-15 jock, NATO Tactical Leadership Program graduate, was like being summoned by acenterfold. We did not have enough gas to split into one-on-one, which we really would have loved to do; but what fun flying several passes over the airfield to motivate the crew chiefs! I was working hard trying to be a smooth Number Three on the inside of the turn. While we were putting on this air-show, I was thinking, "We are the only four ship flight of F-85s airborne anywhere in the whole world!"
The next week while I was in Tegucigalpa outbriefing with the FAL Chief of Staff and Director of Operations, Blake got to fly the Sabre one last fime. There was a transient Australian C-130 crew who apparently climbed out on the top of the wing of their Herky to cheer the display of "BLADE" flying (theAustralian nickname for the Sabre).
I only logged 9.5 hours in the F-86, but of the 4,700-plus hours and 1,079 combat hours I have been lucky enough to live through, I treasure those Sabre flights among my most favorite memories. Who would not? 13
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