I arrived at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona (also known as Willie Air Patch) from Webb Air Force Base, Texas where I had received my wings after 75 hours in the T-33. My graduation orders said that I was a "plt", but after all I had been through, I felt the word "pilot" should have been spelled out - preferably in capital letters! I was soon assigned to the 3525th Combat Crew Training Wing.
I received my gunnery training in the F86F. Because I was an Air National Guard pilot, I, and all other Guard pilots, were assigned to an MDAP (Mutual Defense Assistance Program) squadron. The other MIDAP pilots were from foreign countries. This was a good program as we had to retrain and requalify on instruments and take gunnery in the T-bird before going to the F-86F. The regular USAF pilots went straight into the '86. I also learned that pilots assigned to the F-l00s at Nellis Air Force Base were sent to Willie to get some bent wing time before transitioning into the Super Sabre. They were having an unacceptably high accident rate when going straight into the '100.
The MDAP program was better (for me anyway) because we learned gunnery techniques in a familiar airplane, and we did not have to become proficient in a new bird while learning gunnery at the same time. After we completed our T-bird gunnery and transitioned into the '86, we were ready for the range. And when we completed '86 gunnery, I felt we were ready for anything.
We took ground school and spent three or four sessions in an F-86 simulator before our first solo flight. It was a thrill to fly the Sabre for the first time. I particularly enjoyed the '86 because, with only one seat, there was no instructor in back. Also, the speed brakes did not cause pitch-up when they were opened as on the T-33.
When sitting in the cockpit of the F-86 for the first time, we could see why it was a daylight fighter. It had only the basic full instrument panel (no zero reader or flight director) and a $50 ADF navigation radio! No wonder Radio Direction inder/Automatic Direction Finder instruction was stressed in instrument school! The gunsight in the '86 was essentially the same as in the P-51, except it had radar-ranging which gave a tremendous increase in our accuracy in air-to-air gunnery.
The '86s we had at Willie were a mix of hard and soft wing (with slats) aircraft. I got more air-to-air hits with the soft wing birds. The hard wing '86s were supposedly faster, but they were more difficult to hold on a target in the classic 4g pursuit curve and therefore less accurate. We were taught to open fire at 1,100 feet and cease firing at 900 feet. But when we saw gun camera film from Korea, the screen was filled with the big black circle of a MIG's tailpipe. It seemed every pass was from directly aft and at point blank range. So much for the "pursuit curve"!
The '86 was a super flyer and flew great formation, and I truly learned how to fly in formation with the '86. The artificial feel system did not bother me. Afew (very few) said they missed the controls not getting loose and sloppy at low speeds as was customary with conventional controls.
When we went to the gunnery range, only two .50 caliber guns were loaded along with carrying 2.7SAnch FFAR rockets. For skip and high-angle bombing, 'Coke' machine bomblet dispensers were used in place of the rocket launchers. Each bomblet contained a shotgun charge for scoring purposes. There was a trail of these between Willie and the range, due to various malfunctions of the dispensers, much to the concern of the population below!
I enjoyed high-angle strafing the most, and had my best accuracy, because I could see the rounds hit the target in front of me. I was impressed with the accuracy of the F-86's guns for strafing. Air-to-air gunnery was also fairly accurate if I had a soft wing bird and my radar-ranging worked. The hard wing birds were always on the verge of pitching up at medium g's due to the finless droptanks we used. Air-to-ground rocketry was my third favorite although I could not see the rockets impact. Skip bombing was also a lot of fun because we came in on the target at the same height as the range tower (approximately twenty feet).
For scoring air-to-air, the tips of our bullets were dipped in a waxey paint which transferred to the target when they passed through. After the armorers loaded our guns, they logged each color in the Form 1. One day one of the guys in my flight pulled some mischief by switching the colors in the Form 1 with his instructor to see if he could improve his score! We will never know who won as the target was lost on the way back to the base! When coming off the target earlier with the T-bird, it was difficult to spot the plane in front of us. This was not the case with the '86 as it put out a substantial trail of smoke from its tailpipe.
The F-86, however, was a little short on power at altitude. One day I was on a transition flight when I spotted a B-47 bomber from Davis-Monthan Mr Force Base (just down the road). Being the junior tiger that I was, I attempted to bounce him from 35,000 feet. He spotted me and immediately turned into me. My bird had a hard wing, and when I tried to stay with the '47 in my turn, I stalled out. It took me 10,000 feet of altitude to get the Sabre flying again! Because the '86 had supersonic capability, every jock wanted to go through the sound barrier, much to the distress of both the citizenry and our equipment, especially when we tried to go through with the drop tanks on. To alleviate our impulse, our squadron had a few birds fixed up so we could go through with minimal complaints. They designated four of five birds with hard wings and took the tanks off. We flew to the Boom Area for our big assault on the sound barrier. Our mission profile was to climb to 40,000 feet, level off and push the nose over. I was astounded at my fuel state as I climbed out. It seemed I was running low on fuel from the time the gear came up! I was used to having those big drop tanks full of JP-4. Leveling out at 40,000 with 100%, the Machmeter read .99. I thought I was to push over into a screaming dive to get the '86 through, but as soon as it nosed over slightly, the '86 slipped through easily with about 45 degrees of wing roll.
Our final flight was to bring out the tiger in us. All six guns were armed, and we were to fly to the tactical range where a convoy of old vehicles was set up for us to work over. In the '86, the six 50 caliber guns are mounted along the cockpit. The noise from two guns during training was substantial, but I was not ready for the noise that resulted when all six .50s were firing! The sound was like sixjack hammers! The thrust from all six guns pushed me against the shoulderhamess every time I opened up on the target.
The F-86's graceful looks belied its tremendous ruggedness. As I mentioned earlier, the '86 would pitch up if five to six g's were exceeded due to the large finless droptanks we carried. The pitch-up usually resulted in 9 g's. Our maximum g load with tanks was 7. The g meters were fixed so that the errant pilot could not punch off and delete the g's after a mission. The pilot was also to write up the overstress in the Form 1 and be subjected to possible disciplinary action. The overstress also caused the Sabre to go into the hangar for inspection for popped rivets and so forth. When I brought a bird back once with 9 on the g meter (due to a pitch-up), I did not enter it in the Form 1 to see what would happen. As it turned out, the maintenance squadrons were in a competition for "in commission" status to win "Squadron of the Week". When I came back for the next mission, the g's had been punched off and no entry was made in the Form 1! Who knows how many times this happened to the other '86s? Another story was told of one '86 driver who shot a target cable off during air-to-air. The iron pipe that the target was attached to sliced through his wing all the way back to main spar! When he landed, the target was still draped from the wing.
To give us a proper send-off after completion of gunnery, Bob Hoover from North American Aviation visited to give us a demonstration in the F-86. I thought he would probably bring a nice company Sabre, but to my amazement, he was to use one of our birds that we had been bending up for who knows how long! He walked down a line of our F-86s, and when he came to the one he liked, he said, "I'll take this one. Put on new tires and brakes". Until Hoover had finished his demo, I had no idea of the capability of this outstanding aircraft. My respect for the Sabre increased by an order of magnitude after that demonstration, and my feeling of good fortune to have flown the F-86F has increased more and more as the years have passed.
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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